With chants and prayers, sermons and signs, outrage over a jury’s decision to clear George Zimmerman in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager poured from street protests and church pulpits Sunday amid calls for federal civil rights charges to be filed in the case.
Demonstrations large and small broke out across the country — ranging from a few dozen more than a thousand — in support of the family of Trayvon Martin as protesters decried the not guilty verdict as a miscarriage of justice.
Locally, Imam Paul Hasan of Interfaith Ministries in Lorain, said he was surprised by the verdict. Hasan said the verdict might have been different in Ohio where self-defense laws are stricter. Hasan said the prosecution may not have suceeded in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder, but not finding Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter was an injustice.
“It’s a sad day for this country,” said Hasan who has organized several vigils in the last few years for black homicide victims in Lorain. “It’s not about black or white. It’s about right and wrong.”
Holly Huff, coordinator of the Cascade Street/Furnace Street Blockwatch Association in Elyria, said she didn’t watch the Zimmerman trial because it was too upsetting. Huff said the Trayvon Martin killing has had no effect on membership of the association, which was formed in 2007 and has about 15 members.
Huff, a former Elyria auxiliary police lieutenant, said association members are trained to observe and report suspicious activity to police. Unlike Zimmerman, a self-appointed block watch member with a permit to carry concealed pistols, Huff said association members are not allowed to carry guns while volunteering or follow people they believe are suspicious.
“Just because somebody’s in my neighborhood doesn’t mean they don’t belong,” she said. “Chasing somebody or confronting somebody, no matter which side, could get you hurt.”
Despite comprising just 13 percent of the U.S. population, blacks were six times more likely to be homicide victims than whites in 2008 — the latest year statistics were available — according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks were seven times more likely than whites to be homicide perpetrators.
Hasan said it’s wrong to profile young black men as criminals as the prosecution accused Zimmerman of doing. Hasan said he hopes controversy surrounding the killing and verdict will spur dialogue about whether the high percentage of black men imprisoned on low-level drug charges is because of unfair drug laws.
And Hasan said he hopes Martin’s death will create dialogue about how whites perceive young black men and how young black men perceive themselves.
“We have to be proactive and move forward and not let Trayvon Martin’s death be in vain,” Hasan said.
The NAACP and protesters called for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was acquitted Saturday in Martin’s February 2012 shooting death, which unleashed a national debate over racial profiling, self-defense and equal justice.
The Justice Department said it is looking into the case to determine whether federal prosecutors should file criminal civil rights charges now that Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and religious and civil rights leaders urged calm in hopes of ensuring peaceful demonstrations in the wake of a case that became an emotional flash point.
In New York City, hundreds of protesters marched into Times Square on Sunday night, zigzagging through Manhattan’s streets to avoid police lines. Sign-carrying marchers thronged the busy intersection, chanting “Justice for! Trayvon Martin!” as they made their way from Union Square, blocking traffic for more than an hour before moving on.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles — where an earlier protest was dispersed with beanbag rounds — police closed streets as protesters marched Sunday to condemn Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Rand Powdrill, 41, of San Leandro, said he came to the San Francisco march with about 400 others to “protest the execution of an innocent black teenager.”
“If our voices can’t be heard, then this is just going to keep going on,” he said.
Earlier, at Manhattan’s Middle Collegiate Church, many congregants wore hooded sweatshirts — the same thing Martin was wearing the night he was shot — in a show of solidarity. Hoodie-clad Jessica Nacinovich said she could only feel disappointment and sadness over the verdict.
“I’m sure jurors did what they felt was right in accordance with the law but maybe the law is wrong, maybe society is wrong; there’s a lot that needs fixing,” she said.
At a youth service in Sanford, Fla., where the trial was held, teens wearing shirts displaying Martin’s picture wiped away tears during a sermon at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.
About 200 people turned out for a rally and march in downtown Chicago, saying the verdict was symbolic of lingering racism in the United States. Maya Miller, 73, said the case reminded her of the 1955 slaying of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was murdered by a group of white men while visiting Mississippi. Till’s killing galvanized the civil rights movement.
“Fifty-eight years and nothing’s changed,” Miller said, pausing to join a chant to “Justice for Trayvon, not one more.”
Protesters also gathered in Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., along with a host of other cities.
In Miami, more than 200 people gathered for a vigil. “You can’t justify murder,” read one poster. Another read “Don’t worry about more riots. Worry about more Zimmermans.”
Carol Reitner, 76, of Miami, said she heard about the vigil through an announcement at her church Sunday morning. “I was really devastated. It’s really hard to believe that someone can take the life of someone else and walk out of court free,” she said.
In Philadelphia, about 700 protesters marched from LOVE Park to the Liberty Bell, alternating between chanting Trayvon Martin’s name and “No justice, no peace!”
“We hope this will begin a movement to end discrimination against young black men,” said Johnathan Cooper, one of the protest’s organizers. “And also to empower black people and get them involved in the system.”
Earlier Sunday, hundreds gathered in Union Square in New York City to voice their passions over the verdict, hoisting placards with images of Martin.
Some tempered their anger, saying they didn’t contest the jury’s decision based on the legal issues involved.
But “while the verdict may be legal, a system that doesn’t take into account what happened is a broken legal system,” said Jennifer Lue, 24.
Nineteen-year-old Octavia McMahon came from the Bronx to march with her mother and five siblings, carrying signs they made after learning of the verdict. She called the protests an emotional experience.
“I’m really happy that so many people showed support because it’s not just one person. It’s all of us as one.”
Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, urged peace in the wake of the verdict. Jackson said the legal system “failed justice,” but violence isn’t the answer.
But not all the protesters heeded those calls in the demonstrations that broke out immediately after the verdict.
In Oakland, Calif., some angry demonstrators broke windows, burned U.S. flags and started street fires. Some marchers also vandalized a police squad car and used spray paint to scrawl anti-police graffiti on roads and Alameda County’s Davidson courthouse. In Los Angeles, police said a crowd of about 100 protesters surrounded an officer and eventually had to be dispersed by officers firing beanbag rounds.