SANFORD, Fla. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin reverberated from church pulpits to street protests across the country Sunday in a renewed debate about race, crime and how the U.S. justice system handled a racially polarizing killing of a young black man walking in a quiet neighborhood in Florida.
Lawmakers, members of the clergy and demonstrators who assembled in parks and squares described the verdict of the six-person jury as evidence of persistent racism that afflicts the nation nearly five years after it elected its first African-American president.
“Trayvon Benjamin Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are not seen as a person, but a problem,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told his congregation Sunday morning.
Warnock noted that the verdict came a month after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to void a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The last few weeks have been pivotal to the consciousness of black America,” he said in an interview after services. “Black men have been stigmatized.”
Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had faced charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter – and the prospect of decades in jail, if convicted – stemming from his fatal shooting of Martin, 17, on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, a modest Central Florida city. But late Saturday night, he was acquitted of all charges by the jurors, all of them women and none of them black, who had deliberated for more than 16 hours over two days.
The Justice Department said Sunday that it would review the case to determine if it should consider a federal prosecution.
As dusk fell in New York, a modest rally that had begun hours earlier in Union Square grew to a crowd of thousands that snaked through Midtown Manhattan toward Times Square in an unplanned parade. Onlookers used cellphones to snap pictures of the chanting protesters and their escort by dozens of police cars and scores of officers on foot. Hundreds of bystanders left the sidewalks to join the peaceful demonstration, which brought traffic to a standstill.
Zimmerman and his supporters, as did his lawyers in court, dismissed race as a factor in the events that led to the death of Martin. The defense team argued that Zimmerman had not chased down Martin and that he had acted in self-defense as the 17-year-old slammed Zimmerman’s head on a sidewalk. And Florida law explicitly gives civilians the power to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel that their lives are in danger.
Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, told National Public Radio that race was not a factor in the case, adding: “I never have a moment where I think that my brother may have been wrong to shoot. He used the sidewalk against my brother’s head.”
President Obama weighs in
President Barack Obama, who said shortly after Martin was killed that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon,” spoke out again Sunday regarding the case.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy,” the president said in a statement. “Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. … But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.
“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.”
Black leaders questioned whether Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, would have been acquitted if he had been black and Martin had been white.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president of the NAACP, suggested that this case would galvanize young black Americans in much “the way the Emmett Till case did, in the way the Rodney King case did.”
Reaction seen in demonstrations nationwide
Within moments of the announcement of the verdict Saturday night and continuing through Sunday, demonstrations, some planned and some impromptu, arose in neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Atlanta.
In downtown Oakland, east of San Francisco, dozens of protesters filled the streets to denounce the verdict shortly after it was announced. Some of the protesters set fire to trash cans, broke the windows of businesses and damaged police cars.
Officer J. Moore, a spokesman for the Oakland Police Department, said no arrests had been made and no injuries had been reported. Anticipating a reaction to the verdict, Oakland police officers were backed up by officers from surrounding law enforcement agencies, Moore said.
That seemed to be the case across the country, with no reports of violence or arrests at any of the dozens of demonstrations on Sunday.
In Oakland, Bishop Bob Jackson, the leader of the Acts Full Gospel Church, one of the city’s biggest churches, said he was disappointed by the verdict and hoped that violence would not escalate.
“It’s just a sad day, as far as I’m concerned, as far as racial equality and justice are concerned,” said Jackson, who has long been active in crime prevention in Oakland and in relations between community groups and the police.
“We live in a racist society,” he said. “We need to face it. Black people are not treated the same as white people.”
That sentiment was echoed, with tears and expressions of sorrow, in many of the nation’s black neighborhoods.
“If Trayvon Martin had not been a black man, he still would have been alive,” said Jeff Fard, a community organizer in a black neighborhood in Denver. “We know. If the roles were reversed, Trayvon would have been instantly arrested and, by now, convicted. Those are realities that we have to accept.”
Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for the Martin family, made a similar argument in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”
“When prosecutor John Guy said if the roles were reversed, and Trayvon Martin would have followed and profiled and shot George in the heart, what would the verdict have been? And that’s the question that everybody is asking,” Crump said. “That’s why the whole world was watching this case to see if everybody can get equal justice, not just certain people.”
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