NEWARK — “Tray-von!”
That call-and-response rang out this afternoon outside the Peter W. Rodino Jr. Federal Building in Newark, where about 400 people rallied to protest the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and was acquitted on murder charges in the death last week.
The two-hour protest was one of 100 “Justice for Trayvon” rallies nationwide calling for federal civil rights charges to be brought against Zimmerman.
The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defense laws, guns, and race relations. Zimmerman, who successfully claimed self-defense, identifies as Hispanic. Martin was African-American.
In Newark, people of all ages and races gathered at Court and Broad streets to listen to speeches by religious leaders and representatives from groups including the People’s Organization for Progress, the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, the Urban League and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Many in the crowd carried signs reading “Justice for Trayvon Martin,” “We’re Standing Our Ground!” and “End Racism Now!”
Many of the speakers linked the Martin case to watershed moments of the civil rights movement, invoking names such as Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rodney King.
“For the hip-hop generation, this is the watershed moment — like Emmett Till was for mine,” Mamie Bridgeforth, a pastor and former Newark councilwoman told the crowd.
Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Two white men charged with murder were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s murder is considered a pivotal event in the civil rights movement.
Many in the crowd said racial inequality — and the justice system — equally contributed to injustice in the Zimmerman verdict.
“To some extent, it’s a bit of both,” said 16-year-old Drew Crichlow of Montclair. “When I heard the verdict, I was surprised.”
Ronnie Boseman, a sociology professor at Union County College said while the Zimmerman case involved race, “I’m not sure the verdict was based on racism. But it is very difficult to separate the two.”
Deborah Gregory, president of the Newark chapter of the NAACP, said the Zimmerman verdict “allows our younger people to know we do not live in a ‘post-racial society.
“We can dance around it, but it’s still about race,” she said.
“He (Martin) wasn’t shot at a concert. He wasn’t shot on a stoop,” Lawrence Hamm, of the People’s Organization for Progress, yelled to the crowd. “He was hunted down by a white man and killed because of the color of his skin.”
Not everybody made a direct correlation between race and Zimmerman’s fate. Some said it might have just been the way the law was.
“It’s America, man,” said Kevin Butler, a lifelong Newark resident. “It wasn’t a color thing. What I’m grateful for is, it’s not a response like it was with Rodney King. Everybody’s showing how they feel in a peaceful way.”
Similar rallies were held today in cities across the country.
In New York City, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told several hundred supporters that she was determined to fight for societal and legal changes needed to ensure that black youths are no longer viewed with suspicion because of their skin color.
“I promise you I’m going to work for your children as well,” she said to the rally crowd.
At a morning appearance at Sharpton’s headquarters in Harlem, Fulton implored people to understand that the tragedy involved more than Martin alone.
“Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours,” she said.
In addition to pushing the Justice Department to investigate civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Sharpton said he wants to see a rollback of stand your ground self-defense laws.
Stand your ground laws are on the books in more than 20 states, and they go beyond many older, traditional self-defense statutes. In general, the laws eliminate a person’s duty to retreat in the face of a serious physical threat.
Zimmerman did not invoke Florida’s stand your ground law, instead relying on a traditional self-defense argument. Nor was race discussed in front of the jury that acquitted Zimmerman. But the two topics have dominated public discourse about the case, and came up throughout Saturday’s rallies.
Part of Sharpton’s comments echoed those made by President Obama on the case Friday. “Racial profiling is not as bad as segregation, but you don’t know the humiliation of being followed in a department store,” Sharpton said.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that his department would investigate whether Zimmerman could be charged under federal civil rights laws.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.