SOUTH FLORIDA – From Key West to Palm Beach County, South Floridians joined much of the nation this week to express shock, disbelief and muted outrage at the not-guilty verdict from a Sanford jury in the murder/manslaughter trial of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.
Church services called attention to the verdict and elected officials from President Barack Obama on down commented on the case and the three-week trial that once again has raised questions about racism and a criminal justice system seen by many African Americans as largely weighted against black males.
“I don’t want this to die down,” Christian Demeritt told a vigil Sunday at a small Miami park dedicated to the memory of President John Kennedy, “because it’s going to happen again. It’s up to us. We are the people.”
Speakers called for a special legislative session to repeal the “stand your ground” law that permits the use of deadly force as a first option for self-defense. Attorney General Eric Holder has joined a growing chorus making the same demand.
Calls to scrap the law came also at a rally in Nelson English Park in Key West named for the first black postmaster general of Florida. More than 100 people held a prayer vigil Sunday. For them, the verdict that set Zimmerman free Saturday night was the latest example of judicial injustice.
“We will accept what’s been handed down, though it’s not our will. It was not justice as we know it,” Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez told the crowd. “The fundamental danger of this verdict is not more riots; the fundamental danger of the verdict is more George Zimmermans.”
“Stand Your Ground is a law that must be repealed,” Lopez told the crowd, some of whom cried quietly.
Trayvon’s killing resonates in the Bahama Village community where Marques Butler, 23, was stabbed to death in 2009 by a white man as he and some friends tussled with young people from Hollywood in downtown Key West. The admitted attacker, Nicholas Ferro, allegedly used the N-word just before he stabbed Butler.
“Don’t forget Marques Butler,” the Rev. Gwendolyn Magby said.
“Stand your ground” has been especially fatal for black men, allowing their attackers to get away with murder, she said. “Stand your ground? For who?” she said. “Trayvon stood his ground, too.”
Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale hosted a “peace rally” Tuesday that included prayers for the community, the justice system, the state, youth and the Martin and Zimmerman families. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Marcus Davidson, spoke on the topic, “Why we must be peaceful.”
“Peace is not the absence of pain or problems. Stop waiting on the death of another Trayvon Martin before we’re incited to vote. We don’t win by fighting. Nonviolence is not the equivalent of silence,” Davidson said.
“I was so angry after the verdict,” Roberta Carter-Pickett said. “I have not been able to watch any of the
coverage. I could not watch the jurors. There were things going through my mind and I didn’t want to think that and I didn’t want to feel like that. So, I needed prayer. By being here and listening, I feel relieved. I feel better. I can move forward now. Before today, I couldn’t understand why they wanted to pray for Zimmerman but I understand now.”
The hour-long ceremony wrapped up with the singing of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and a rousing rendition of We shall Overcome, with the crowd holding hands across the aisles in a symbol of togetherness and solidarity.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, asked for a comment on the aftermath of the verdict, said he believed “the national dialogue which will grow from this verdict has the potential to be positive for our nation.”
“Our prayers for peace were answered and I look forward to continuing our open dialogue with clergy and other community leaders,” Israel said in a statement.
In Palm Beach County, a rally and signing of a petition to pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman will be held 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 28, at Hilltop Missionary Baptist Church, 1273 W. 30th St., Riviera Beach, Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters said.
Masters said acquittal seemed to reinforce the notion of unfairness in the judicial system towards minorities and the poor. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
Boynton United founder Rae Whitely said his first thought on hearing the verdict was, “What was going to happen now?”
Whitely’s organization seeks to stem violence and help youths ages 11-18. He said it was “challenging” to explain to his sons ages 14, 15 and 19 why Trayvon was, he said, profiled and shot dead. “It was a very difficult conversation,” he said.
Lia Gaines, president of the West Palm Beach Branch of the NAACP, said she was disappointed that race was not highlighted by the prosecution.
“It’s almost like you’re being re-traumatized,” she said. “The ‘stand your ground’ law doesn’t mean the ground of white people only.”
Protests across the country have remained calm, except for flare-ups in parts of California.
Obama on Sunday urged calm, saying America is “a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” Obama had said shortly after the shooting that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon.
“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,” Obama said in a written statement released by the White House.
“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own
communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis,” Obama said. “We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
The Justice Department announced that the criminal section of its civil rights division, the FBI and federal prosecutors in Florida are evaluating the evidence generated during the federal investigation, plus evidence and testimony from the state trial to determine whether to file criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. The department opened an investigation into Tryvon’s killing last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed.
Zimmerman was initially not charged, claiming self-defense, but under national pressure Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor who filed a second degree murder charge some 44 days after the fatal encounter. Prosecutors got the judge’s OK during the trial to add manslaughter to the charges.
Tuesday, the NAACP announced that a petition asking the Justice Department to file charges against Zimmerman reached one million signatures in two and a half days.
Speaking at the NAACP national convention in Orlando Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder denounced the “stand your ground” self-defense laws in Florida and dozens of other states, saying they “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”
Holder said the laws allowed and perhaps encouraged “violent situations to escalate in public” and “undermine public safety.” Delegates applauded him when he told them to “stand our ground” and change the laws.
A day earlier, Holder told the 51st national convention of Delta Sigma Theta, that there is now “yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.”
Also Tuesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton announced he will lead a national “Justice for Trayvon” rally in 100 cities at noon on Saturday to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
“People all across the country will gather to show that we are not having a two- or three-day anger fit. This is a social movement for justice,” Sharpton said as he announced the plan outside the Justice Department with several ministers.
Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this report.