Demonstrators rallied in about 100 U.S. cities Saturday, chanting, singing, sign-waving, and demanding justice in the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin.
The coast-to-coast rallies — in which protesters called for a federal civil rights investigation and a repeal of Florida-style Stand Your Ground self-defense laws — came exactly one week after a jury acquitted shooter George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The verdict prompted such a nationwide discussion of race, crime and justice that President Barack Obama unexpectedly held a White House briefing a day before the rallies to share deeply personal thoughts on what it means to be black in America.
But Trayvon’s dad had a far simpler message Saturday in downtown Miami.
“I’d like the world to know that Trayvon was my son. He was a loved child. He did nothing wrong,” Tracy Martin said to the crowd of about 500 at the federal courthouse on North Miami Avenue.
“I promised Trayvon, when he was laying in his casket, that I would use every ounce of energy in my body to seek justice for him,” he said. “I will continue to fight for Trayvon until the day I die.”
“Not only will I fight for Trayvon, I’ll be fighting for your child as well,” he said. “One of our deepest missions is to make sure that we advocate against senseless violence. Senseless violence is just a disease. And we as a people have the cure. We just have to come together.”
But there were isolated signs of divisiveness, with two demonstrators wearing shirts that said “Creepy Ass Cracker” — a racially charged phrase that Trayvon used when Zimmerman initially pursued him through a Sanford apartment complex on the rainy evening of Feb. 26, 2012, when he was killed.
Far more people at the rallies wore less inflammatory clothing, which bore likenesses of Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. or that said “Justice for Trayvon” — the name of the rally.
The rallies were organized by National Action Network, an organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York activist and MSNBC host.
At the organization’s home city in New York, hundreds — including music superstars Jay-Z and Beyoncé — gathered to hear Sharpton and Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
“Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours,” she said.
Like her ex-husband in Miami, Fulton did not speak at length or in depth about race.
In contrast, in Miami, Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson followed Trayvon’s father with an address that heavily dwelled on race.
Wilson reminded the crowd that Sanford was the place where baseball star Jackie Robinson was spat on and had urine thrown on him during spring training in the 1940s.
“Sanford has a history of racist tactics,” she said, calling Zimmerman a murderer.
Wilson also mentioned “driving while black,” and condemned “the racist laws in the criminal justice system.”
Wilson didn’t specifically address the 2005 Stand Your Ground self-defense law when she was in the state Senate. Wilson and every Democrat joined the Republicans to vote for it in the Senate, a vote Wilson has since said she regretted.
The law broadened the right to use lethal self-defense in dangerous public confrontations. Before the law, a person in public generally was bound by a “duty to retreat” from an attacker. That duty was stricken and people were given a right to “stand his or her ground” and “meet force with force.”
The self-defense law also gave a measure of immunity from prosecution or arrest to defendants, which was likely a factor in the Sanford police department’s refusal to immediately arrest Zimmerman after he shot the unarmed teen and said he was acting in self-defense.
The exact role of the Stand Your Ground law in the jury’s not-guilty verdict is unclear, although the statutory language was in the jury instructions and an anonymous juror twice told CNN that “Stand Your Ground” was discussed.
Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republican legislators say they have no intention of changing the law. The violent-crime and homicide rates are falling, and 2012 polls show the law is favored by a majority of Florida voters.
Outside Scott’s state Capitol office, though, a group of young protesters who call themselves the Dream Defenders have camped out in the lobby with a demand for a special lawmaking session on Stand Your Ground.
The occupation has entered its fifth day. Scott, who has met with them, has refused to call for a special session.
Despite steady rain, three dozen people showed up outside the Florida Capitol on Saturday to show support for the Dream Defenders. If any leave the Capitol, which is closed for the weekend, they’re not allowed back inside until Monday morning.
All was quiet on Saturday afternoon — until the group formed outside of the locked glass doors and broke out into song: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it’s won.”
Almost simultaneously, the two groups bowed their heads in prayer.
“It’s powerful to know we have this kind of support,” said Regina Joseph, a 19-year-old student at Florida State, who was inside.
In Miami, Saturday’s demonstration was short-lived. By midday, the crowds petered out at the federal courthouse. Demonstrators throughout the nation chose the federal courthouses to call on the Justice Department to press for a federal investigation.
Obama side-stepped the issue on Friday, instead giving heartfelt remarks that touched on the complexities of black-on-black crime, the high black crime rate and the injustices of racial profiling.
But Attorney General Eric Holder was more direct this week at an NAACP conference in Orlando. He called for a review of Stand Your Ground laws and said his department will thoroughly review the case.
Last year, however, the FBI interviewed scores of people who knew and know Zimmerman and found no evidence he was motivated by racial animus when called police and told them Trayvon looked as if he was up to no good in the burglary-prone apartment complex.
Trayvon was walking back in the rain from a convenience store, carrying only Skittles and juice before his confrontation with Zimmerman that led to his death.
Lacking any witnesses other than Zimmerman, the prosecution struggled to prove its case as Zimmerman’s defense team appeared to outmaneuver the state from beginning to end.
Still, the acquittal of a man who shot an unarmed teen was too much for many to understand.
In Miami, Alicia Allard and her family attended the rally to vent their frustration with Zimmerman’s acquittal and social injustice in a constructive way.
“Every male in my family has been pulled over by the police while driving for no reason,” said Allard, who came from Pembroke Pines with her children and met up with her mother, nephew and niece.
Shortly after speaking, Tracy Martin walked briskly to a black Escalade waiting to drive him away. Bodyguards separated him from a crowd of photographers and admirers crowding his path.
At one point, the bodyguards grew suspicious of a Miami Herald reporter and falsely accused him of writing down the license plate number of the Escalade. They demanded to go through the reporter’s notebook, followed him and then snatched it. They returned the Miami Herald’s property only when they were being photographed.
The guards wore shirts indicating they worked with Bishop Victor T. Curry, founding pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
That incident aside, no signs of hostility were apparent.
Liberty City activist Renita Holmes shouted “stay strong” to Martin through a megaphone. He turned quickly and raised a fist, took some pictures with some women and got in the SUV as Wilson promised that anger over Martin’s death wouldn’t fade.
After Wilson spoke, Holmes led a crowd of about 200 on a march around the block where they stopped and chanted in front of Miami police headquarters and a state Department of Children and Families office.
Larry Jackson, who came from Miami Gardens with his wife, girls and granddaughter, walked holding the hand of his 4-year-old daughter.
“Back in the 70s there was a time when someone of my color couldn’t walk in North Miami Beach without a badge explaining why you were there,” he said. “This is 2013, and I guess things aren’t that different.”
Like Jackson, many families came with their young children. For these parents, Trayvon’s killing and the Zimmerman verdict have been cause to stop and talk about what it means to be a black man in America.
Trevor, a fifth-grader in Broward, said he was proud to be a part of the rally.
He said that his mom told him Saturday, “some people will think you might be doing something wrong just by the look of your skin color. I think that’s wrong.”