Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rallies seek 'justice'

Zimmerman acquittal spurs U.S. protests

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ATLANTA -- One week after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, people gathered nationwide Saturday to press for federal civil rights charges against the former neighbourhood-watch leader and to call for changes in the nation's self-defence laws.

The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defence, guns and race relations. Zimmerman, who successfully claimed he was protecting himself when he shot Martin, identifies himself as Hispanic. Martin was black.

For some attendees, particularly those who are black, the rallies seemed as much about those larger issues as about the verdict.

"It's personal," said Cincinnati resident Chris Donegan, whose 11-year-old son wore a hoodie to the rally, as Martin did the night he died. "Anybody who is black with kids, Trayvon Martin became our son."

The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network organized the "Justice for Trayvon" rallies and vigils outside federal buildings in at least 101 cities, from New York and Los Angeles to Wichita, Kan., and Atlanta, where people stood in the rain at two federal buildings, with traffic blocked on surrounding downtown streets.

Chants rang out across the rallies. "Justice! Justice! Justice! ... Now! Now! Now!" "'We won't forget." "No justice! No peace!" Many also sang hymns, prayed and held hands.

Many participants carried signs: "Who's next?" "I am Trayvon Martin." "Enough Is Enough."

Most rallies began at noon. In New York, hundreds of people, including Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and music superstars Jay-Z and Beyonce, gathered in the heat.

Fulton told the crowd she was determined to fight for societal and legal changes needed to ensure black youths are no longer viewed with suspicion because of their skin colour.

"I promise you I'm going to work for your children as well," she told the crowd.

At a morning appearance at Sharpton's headquarters in Harlem, she implored people to understand the tragedy involved more than Martin alone. "Today, it was my son. Tomorrow, it might be yours," she said.

In Atlanta, speakers noted the rally occurred in the shadows of federal buildings named for two figures who had vastly differing views on civil rights and racial equality: Richard B. Russell was a Georgia governor and U.S. senator elected in the Jim Crow South; Martin Luther King Jr. is the face of African-Americans' civil rights movement.

"What's so frightening about a black man in a hood?" said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who now preaches at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

"History would suggest that we have plenty of data to be worried when we see other folk moving through our neighbourhoods in hoods. Some of them have on pinstripe suits, but in their hearts, they're wearing a hood."

In addition to pushing the U.S. Justice Department to investigate civil-rights charges against Zimmerman, Sharpton told supporters in New York he wants to see a rollback of stand-your-ground self-defence laws.

"We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again," Sharpton said.

Stand-your-ground laws are on the books in more than 20 states and go beyond many older, traditional self-defence statutes. In general, the newer laws eliminate a person's duty to retreat, if possible, in the face of a serious physical threat.

Zimmerman didn't invoke stand-your-ground at his trial, relying instead on a traditional self-defence argument, but the judge included a provision of the law in the jurors' instructions, allowing them to consider it as a legitimate defence.

Neither was race discussed in front of the Zimmerman jury, but the two topics have dominated public discourse about the case and came up throughout Saturday's rallies.

In Indianapolis, Rev. Jeffrey Johnson told about 200 attendees Saturday's nationwide rallies were about making life safer for young black men, who he said are still endangered by racial profiling.

Johnson compared Zimmerman's acquittal to that of four white officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992.

"The verdict freed George Zimmerman, but it condemned America more," said Johnson, pastor of the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis and a member of the board of directors of the National Action Network.

In Miami, Tracy Martin spoke about his son.

"This could be any one of our children," he said. "Our mission now is to make sure that this doesn't happen to your child."

He recalled a promise he made to his son as he lay in his casket. "I will continue to fight for Trayvon until the day I die," he said.

Shantescia Hill held a sign in Miami that read: "Every person deserves a safe walk home." The 31-year-old mother, who is black, said, "I'm here because our children can't even walk on the streets without fearing for their lives."

Speaking at the White House on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said it's a reality for black men in America to "be followed in a department store" while shopping or to walk down the street and "hear the car doors lock." The nation's first black president said he had both experiences before he rose to social and political prominence.

At the New Orleans rally, La'Monte Johnson shared a similar story.

The California native said he's been stopped multiple times by police and handcuffed "because I fit the description of someone they were looking for," though he noted charges were never filed against him.

"You can be the greatest black guy around, but you can't get away from it," he said.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2013 A6

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