Freedom Plaza Rally First of Many in the District of Columbia
Perhaps as many as 2,000 people packed a closed-off section of Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest to demonstrate their revulsion and outrage at the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The throng which took part in Saturday's Washington DC Rally for Justice, spilled down the steps of the John A. Wilson Building and clogged a city block and large sections of Freedom Plaza adjoining city hall.
Latoya Smith, 36, brought her two sons, Kelis, 11, and Dante, 6, with her to the rally, which took place under overcast skies and intermittent drizzle.
"When I heard what happened to Trayvon it hit home," said Smith who lives in Northeast. "I've been asking why it happened, what was the story and it's getting worse and worse as you find out more."
Bishop Michael Kelsey of New Samaritan Baptist Church in Northeast, said indignation brought him to the March 24 rally.
"My outrage in terms of injustice brought me out here," said the 56-year-old Glenn Dale, Md., resident. "I wanted to be in Florida but could not. The turnout is incredible considering the weather and I'm really impressed with the range of age groups."
Kelsey said education and a greater willingness by people of all races and ethnicities to learn and appreciate other people's cultures are keys to change.
Taking to the Streets
A phalanx of protestors stood on the steps of the Wilson Building shoulder-to-shoulder holding hands with heads bowed before the afternoon event started. Most sported hoodies and held packs of Skittles and cans of Arizona Iced Tea, the items Trayvon had gone to the store to purchase. Others, with arms fully extended before them, held fliers with a photograph of Trayvon wearing a grey hoodie.
Among the signs held aloft: "I don't apologize for my blackness or your fear", "Hoodie, Skittles, tea, black – Guess I'm next," and "Skittles is not a weapon." One young white woman held a large poster above her head emblazoned with the words, "Trayvon Martin is my son too."
The crowd's energy ratcheted up several levels when a large contingent of demonstrators marched up shortly after speakers began addressing the crowd and converged across from the Wilson Building.
"We are ..." the new arrivals chanted with a throaty roar.
"... Trayvon!" their compatriots across the street shouted back. Each side repeated this call and response for several minutes before the second group hollered, "Skittles, ice tea are not suspicious to me!" and then both sides picked up the chant.
Trayvon, an honor roll student, was shot and killed on Sunday, February 26 while returning home from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. He was staying with his father in a gated community that was being patrolled by George Zimmerman, a self-styled community defender. Zimmerman, 28, admits shooting the high school junior, who was spending time with his father after being suspended from school for tardiness.
Zimmerman told a police dispatcher that the young man looked suspicious, he followed Trayvon despite being told not to, and during the confrontation shot him in the chest. He claimed self-defense and has not been arrested.
One month has passed since the slaying.
Craig Sonner, Zimmerman's attorney, said his client – who is of white and Hispanic descent – is not a racist.
Trayvon's father Tracy Martin told more than three dozen publishers from the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) during an interview last Friday, that he thought his son was hanging out with his nephew and he began searching for him the next day when he realized he had not returned home. After searching for his son and while preparing to file a missing person's report, officers came to his home.
"I got up, got on clothes, went outside because I knew my kid was going to walk back up to the door," Martin said. "Instead, three cars pulled up to the door, one of them an unmarked police vehicle. [One officer] asked me if I had a recent picture of Trayvon and it just so happened that I had taken a picture ... maybe a week or two prior to the incident. I showed them the picture. He told me to give him a second. He walked to his vehicle, retrieved a folder and asked could we go into the house."
"He told me he was going to show me a photo and that he was going to ask me if this was my kid. And he pulled out the photo. From that point, it's been like a nightmare."
The case has sparked a conflagration of fury, condemnation and mass protests. Social media has helped drive the response to the shooting.
President Obama weighed in about the case when asked at a Rose Garden ceremony last Friday.
"Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through," he said. "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids ... You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Also Friday, the Miami Heat basketball team paid tribute to the slain youth by donning hoodies. In the team photo tweeted by LeBron James, 13 players' heads were bowed with their hands in their pockets. Several of them also penned messages on their sneakers before the game. A MoveOn petition initiated by Trayvon's parents has so far gained 1.75 million signatures.
Seeking Legal Cover
Both Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and Seminole County State Attorney Norman Wolfinger stepped down last week, following an avalanche of criticism for their handling of the case. Wolfinger recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. It was his decision not to press charges against Zimmerman, and Lee was prepared to sign off on a finding that the department couldn't determine enough probable cause and that all the evidence appeared to suggest self-defense.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped into the investigation and are trying to determine if a hate crime was committed.
Florida's "Stand Your Ground Law" is under intense scrutiny as a result of the killing. The law grants immunity to those who use deadly force inside and outside of the home, if the person can "reasonably claim he was defending himself."
But the law's author, State Rep. Dennis Baxley, said in an interview following the slaying that "there was nothing in this statute ever intended to protect somebody who was pursuing or confronting other people."
Speakers and parents in the crowd said they can't begin to imagine how Trayvon's parents feel, saying that this is every black parent's worst nightmare.
"I am one mother. I stand before you as one mother raising a black child, teaching my son how to save his life," Avis Jones-DeWeever told the crowd. "No teaching, no counsel and no attire could have saved Trayvon Martin from being murdered."
"We're not here to debate a so-called 'hold your ground' law because the only person who needed to hold his ground was Trayvon. I heard Zimmerman's attorney talking about his client isn't a racist. I don't care if he's a racist, I care that he is a murderer."
After her remarks, Jones-DeWeever, president of the National Council of Negro Women, elaborated.
"I'm angry and heart-broken at the same time," she said during the interview. "As the mother of two sons, we have to educate our sons around what they need to be aware of, relevant to police interaction. There's no advice he [Trayvon] could have been given to deal with an ordinary citizen who chased, hunted and shot him down."
"What's worst is the complete inaction of the police department. Obviously, their position at the scene was that Zimmerman was the victim ... Trayvon was in the neighborhood legitimately. Juxtapose this: the man was 100 pounds heavier, he had a criminal past but the person they ran the background check on, the one they did the blood test on and who they dehumanized after death was Trayvon."
Demands for Social Change
The Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational Church of Christ in Northeast revved up the ethnically and culturally diverse crowd with a large dose of righteous indignation.
"We're standing here today because we're all Trayvon Martin!" he said. "Racism is pervasive in this country. It has been maturing and moving ever since black people came to this rock. When we elected Obama, they talked about a post-racial America. They don't wear Klan robes but we have Limbaugh on the radio. Racism is so insidious. When you mix race with guns, that's a disaster waiting to happen."
" ... Enough is enough. This is a brand new day in America. We'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder ... we're never, ever, ever going to be quiet or silent or passive. We will shake this entire nation. We will fight for every life ..."
The Rev. Tony Lee moderated the rally and introduced three of the four young women who organized the demonstration, as well as community leaders, students and activists, radio personalities, poets and politicians. Lee, the senior pastor of Community of Hope African Methodist Church in Temple Hills, Md., described the quartet as ordinary people who felt compelled to take a stand and who, with no corporate or church backing and only by word of mouth and social media, pulled the protest together.
Renee Raymond, a local criminal defense lawyer, said there is nothing complicated about what the authorities should do.
"I am here to give voice and stand with people who are stunned and outraged by the absence of local and federal action to a senseless murder," she said. "There is absolutely no reason, even with the law, that the admitted shooter has not been arrested. There is no rule or law in Florida which says that local authorities have to wait for a grand jury."
"I'm here with folks and ask that a simple, simple act of arrest for the simple taking of a life be done. It's the right thing. If the tables were reversed, it's safe to assume that Trayvon would be in jail."
Alexandria resident Shannon Malone came to the rally with her 14-year-old nephew Charlie Christiansen. The fact that she is white doesn't diminish the anguish she feels about the circumstances surrounding Trayvon's death, she said.
"I'm not surprised this happened," she said. "I lived in Georgia for 4 ½ years and know how minorities are treated. I came here as an aunt. I have many friends with children. Trayvon did nothing wrong. Let me make this clear: the actions of the Sanford Police Department were reprehensible. I want them to be held accountable for their actions."
Her nephew shook his head as his aunt spoke.
"It's amazing to see so many people get together to fight for justice," Charlie said, surveying the crowd. "Racism drives people apart ... unless people get together, things will get worse."
A succession of speakers commented on the bigotry and racism that haunts black men and boys, demanded justice and expressed their determination to continue to agitate for change so that Trayvon's life would not be in vain. Most of them said that these protests mean nothing if Trayvon's death does not lead to wider social change.
However, David Bowers took a different tack, eliciting loud cheers from the crowd.
"It's tragic that Trayvon was killed but it's just as tragic when black people are killed by other black people," said Bowers, founder of No Murders DC. "Since I graduated high school in this city, thousands of people, most of whom look like me, have been murdered in this city. We need the same righteous indignation when a black man kills a black man or a black man kills a black woman as when a white man kills a black man."
Longtime activist and radio personality Joe Madison, who had just returned from Sanford, characterized Trayvon's slaying as a 2012 version of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. As surely as he is black, Madison said, if Trayvon had killed Zimmerman, he'd be behind bars.
"They did a blood test on Trayvon's body and not a test on the man who shot him," Madison said. "Not only did they let him go, they gave him his gun back. The case has gone cold."
"...Why are we here? Because we love Trayvon, we love his family."
Madison suggested designating April 10, the day a grand jury convenes in Sanford, as National Hoodie Day.
"Everyone should wear one. Hell, I want the president to wear one. This collective action will say to the world that we want justice."