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Prayer, Anger and Protests Greet Verdict in Florida Case

N.Y. Times July 14, 2013

Protests Follow Zimmerman Acquittal

The fallout over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was felt across the country on Sunday.

By Adam Nagourney

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin reverberated from church pulpits to street protests across the country on Sunday in a renewed debate about race, crime and how the American 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 on a hot July day described the verdict by the six-person jury as evidence of a persistent racism that afflicts the nation 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 seen not as a person but a problem,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told a congregation once led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Warnock noted that the verdict came less than a month after the Supreme Court voted 5 to 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Martin, 17, on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, a modest Central Florida city. Late Saturday, he was acquitted of all charges by the jurors, all of them women and none black, who had deliberated more than 16 hours over two days.

President Obama, calling Mr. Martin’s death a tragedy, urged Americans on Sunday to respect the rule of law, and the Justice Department said 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.

In Sanford, the Rev. Valarie J. Houston drew shouts of support and outrage at Allen Chapel A.M.E. as she denounced “the racism and the injustice that pollute the air in America.”

“Lord, I thank you for sending Trayvon to reveal the injustices, God, that live in Sanford,” she said.

Mr. Zimmerman and his supporters dismissed race as a factor in the death of Mr. Martin. The defense team argued that Mr. Zimmerman had acted in self-defense as the 17-year-old slammed Mr. Zimmerman’s head on a sidewalk. Florida law explicitly gives civilians the power to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel that their lives are in danger.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. Obama, who had said shortly after Mr. Martin was killed that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon,” urged the nation to accept the verdict.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy,” Mr. Obama 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. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, one of the country’s leading advocates of gun control, said the death of Mr. Martin would continue to drive his efforts. “Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known,” he said. “But one fact has long been crystal clear: ‘Shoot first’ laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns.”

The reactions to the verdict suggested that racial relations remained polarized in many parts of this country, particularly regarding the American justice system and the police.

“I pretty well knew that Mr. Zimmerman was going to be let free, because if justice was blind of colors, why wasn’t there any minorities on the jury?” said Willie Pettus, 57, of Richmond, Va.

Maxine McCrey, attending services at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, said the verdict was a reminder of the failure of the justice system. “There’s no justice for black people,” she said. “Profiling and targeting our black men has not stopped.”

Ms. McCrey dabbed at her eyes as she recalled the moment she learned of the verdict. “I cried,” she said. “And I am still crying.”

Many blacks, and some whites, questioned whether Mr. Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, would have been acquitted if he were black and Mr. Martin were white.

“He would have been in jail already,” Leona Ellzy, 18, said as she visited a monument to Mr. Martin in Sanford. “The black man would have been in prison for killing a white child.”

Jeff Fard, a community organizer in a black neighborhood in Denver, said Mr. Martin would be alive today if he were not black. “If the roles were reversed, Trayvon would have been instantly arrested and, by now, convicted,” he said. “Those are realities that we have to accept.”

But even race’s role in the case became a matter of a debate. One of Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers, Mark O’Mara, said he also thought the outcome would have been different if his client were black — but for reasons entirely different from those suggested by people like Mr. Fard.

“He never would have been charged with a crime,” Mr. O’Mara said.

“This became a focus for a civil rights event, which again is a wonderful event to have,” he said. “But they decided that George Zimmerman would be the person who they were to blame and sort of use as the creation of a civil rights violation, none of which was borne out by the facts. The facts that night were not borne out that he acted in a racial way.”

In Atlanta, Tommy Keith, 62, a white retired Cadillac salesman, rejected any contention that this was anything more than a failed murder case presented by the state. “The state’s got to prove their case, O.K.?” he said. “They didn’t. Stand Your Ground law is acceptable with me, and these protests are more racial than anything else. In my opinion, it’s not a racial thing.”

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. There were no reports of serious violence or arrests as the day went on, a contrast with the riots that swept Los Angeles after the verdict in another race-tinged case, the 1992 acquittal of white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, a black construction worker.

In downtown Oakland, 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 patrol cars.

About 40 people in Atlanta, carrying sodas and Skittles to underscore the errand to a store that Mr. Martin was completing when he was shot, marched to Woodruff Park on Saturday night. In Washington, about 250 marchers protested the verdict late Saturday and early Sunday as police cruisers trailed them.

A few hundred protesters gathered at a rally in downtown Chicago on Sunday, some wearing signs showing Mr. Martin wearing a hoodie.

“I’m heartbroken, but it didn’t surprise me,” said Velma Henderson, 65, a retired state employee who lives in a southern suburb of Chicago. “The system is screwed. It’s a racist system, and it’s not designed for African-Americans.”

A similar sense of resignation flowed through St. Sabina, a Catholic church on the South Side of Chicago, where many parishioners are black. They gathered in the sanctuary holding signs that read, “Trayvon Martin murdered again by INjustice system.”

“Like many of you, I’m angered, I’m disappointed, I’m disgusted,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who is white, told his congregation at St. Sabina. “And yet like many of you, I’m not shocked. ’Cause unfortunately, this is the America that we know all too well. Yesterday, we watched the justice system fail miserably again.”

As blacks and whites struggled with the racial implications of the debate, many called for prayer and peace and urged that there be no escalation of violence.

“My heart is heavy,” said Milton Felton, a cousin of Mr. Martin’s, outside Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens, Fla., where members of the family had gathered. “But that’s our justice system. Let’s be peaceful about it.”

At Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, parishioners seemed stricken by what many described as a reminder of how far the nation still needed to go to resolve its racial differences. “I felt he was going to get off,” said Helen Corley, attending services there. “He knew he could do it and get away with it.”

“It crushed my spirit,” she said.

Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz, Michaelle Bond and Whitney Richardson from New York; Cara Buckley from Sanford, Fla.; Kim Severson and Alan Blinder from Atlanta; Monica Davey and Steven Yaccino from Chicago; Jack Healy from Denver; Ian Lovett from Los Angeles; Nick Madigan from Miami; Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia; John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo.; Norimitsu Onishi from San Francisco; and Trip Gabriel from Washington.

Correction: July 14, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a pastor in Sanford, Fla. She is Valarie J. Houston, not Valerie. It also misstated the city where Jeff Fard is a community organizer. It is Denver, not Detroit.

© 2013 The New York Times

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