As the acquittal of George Zimmerman began to sink in Sunday, the streets of South Florida stayed mostly quiet. But anger and disappointment filled pews in African-American churches where pastors tried to comfort their aggrieved flocks.
The ministers themselves were struggling.
Moments after the not-guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin, a black Miami Gardens teenager, was announced Saturday night, the Rev. Arthur Jackson III said his young nephew asked him: “Why?”
“I didn’t know what to say,” Jackson told his congregation at Antioch Missionary Baptist, the Miami Gardens church where Trayvon’s mother has worshipped.
Every pew and chair in the sanctuary was full hours after a jury of six women dismissed the second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watchman who shot the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon in the heart during a violent struggle on a residential street in Central Florida more than a year ago. Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, said he acted in self-defense.
When Zimmerman wasn’t immediately charged, the high-profile case galvanized civil-rights activists and prompted a national debate over racial profiling and Florida’s contentious Stand Your Ground law.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama urged Americans to think about how to increase compassion and understanding, stem gun violence and prevent future tragic deaths.
“We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken,” said Obama, who last year noted that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon. “I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
Protestors angry with the jury’s decision demonstrated Sunday across the country, including San Francisco; Newark, N.J.; New York; Atlanta and Madison, Wisc. They carried signs in Washington, D.C., and rallied in downtown Chicago, the Associated Press reported. More protests are planned for Monday.
A late-night gathering in Oakland, Calif., Saturday ended with broken windows, burned U.S. flags and a vandalized police car, according to the AP. About 200 people marched after the verdict was delivered through downtown Tallahassee.
A statewide “Day of Action” was scheduled for Tuesday outside the Florida Capitol by Dream Defenders, a group dedicated to social change through non-violent civil disobedience.
In South Florida, the peaceful demonstrations were muted by rainstorms throughout the day. By Sunday afternoon, Miami-Dade police had reopened parks previously closed for planned gatherings, and a rumor control line was shut down.
“Miami is a far more mature community than it was 25, 30 years ago when we had violent reactions to criminal court verdicts,” said Ed Shohat, a member of Miami-Dade’s Community Relations Board, which was monitoring reaction through churches, community organizations and on social media, and did not see any signs of unrest.
Police officers and pastors held meetings over the five-week trial encouraging potential demonstrators to remain peaceful.
“The tragic loss of life of a young man — a product of our hometown — has been a very emotional issue for our community,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a written statement urging residents “to come together and pray for the families as we move forward in the healing process.”
A vigil Sunday evening at the Torch of Friendship in downtown Miami near Bayfront Park drew more than 100 people. They marched to the steps of the Freedom Tower, some wearing hoodies like the one Trayvon wore the night he was killed.
Others held protest signs — “I am Trayvon Martin” — lighters and candles, chanting even as rain began to fall.
Earlier in Miami Gardens, Jackson, the church pastor, was asked by reporters if he thought violence might erupt in response to the verdict.
“They asked me, ‘Will the people in the community arm themselves?’ I said, ‘Yes. We’re armed with power of the Lord.’”
“We just keep our faith,” said I’esha Felton, one of Trayvon’s cousins. “We don’t want this to happen again.”
At Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, the Rev. Gaston Smith delivered a joyful sermon to his parishioners because, he said afterward, “They came to church sad today.”
He told the dozens of people assembled that judgment and vengeance belong to God.
“Give us healing, not hatred,” he said. “Make us better, not bitter.”
Smith said he stayed up all night praying and reading the Bible, “trying to make sense” of the verdict. “There’s a feeling in our community that a 17-year-old black kid has no value,” he told the Miami Herald.
Sunday afternoon, a diverse group of about a dozen people organized by the interdenominational group Mission Miami gathered in front of North Miami City Hall to pray for peace, unity and the Martin and Zimmerman families. After holding hands and praying for 20 minutes, they departed with hugs and a song.
“We are a wonderful people that work hard and love our families and want what everyone wants, the opportunity to live our lives free from molestation, persecution, and in the pursuit of our greatest happiness,” Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III said in a written statement advising his constituents to defy expectations of violence.
“We will mourn Trayvon and grieve with his family.”
In the Central Florida town of Sanford, where the shooting took place, some residents sought solace in family, community and familiar places.
Richard Taylor, who lives in the city’s historically black Goldsboro neighborhood, walked with his 5-year-old daughter, Ty Juaiun Burke, to a landscaped stone-and-wood memorial for Trayvon and 10 others who may have been unjustly killed near Sanford.
“How am I supposed to explain to my kids that a kid like them was walking home when someone else jumped out and shot him — and that person isn’t in jail, where bad people are supposed to go,” he said.
Ty Juaiun pulled at her dad’s T-shirt and asked about the memorial: “are those people in there?”
“No, baby,” he said. “They’re in heaven.”