Voices raised for Trayvon

March 22, 2012

Gary Lapon and Julian Guerrero report from New York City on an angry protest--one of many across the country--against the killing of Trayvon Martin.

THOUSANDS of people gathered in Union Square in New York City March 21 for a "Million Hoodie March" to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, as outrage at his racist murder continues to spread across the country and the world.

Trayvon was gunned down in the central Florida town of Sanford in late February as he walked to the home of his father's fiancé. His killer was George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was patrolling a gated community when he spotted Trayvon. To judge from chilling 911 recordings, Zimmerman decided that the African American 17-year-old was "suspicious," began stalking him and then shot him at point-blank range.

Police questioned Zimmerman, and then released him because he claimed he killed Trayvon in "self-defense"--though Zimmerman outweighed Trayvon by nearly 100 pounds and was armed with a handgun, while Trayvon possessed only a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Nearly a month after the crime, Zimmerman has still not been arrested.

Trayvon's parents led the protest in New York City. Demonstrators wore hoodies as a show of solidarity--Trayvon was wearing one when he was murdered--and to dramatize the statement from the organizers' Facebook page that "a Black person in a hoodie isn't automatically 'suspicious.'"

Marchers took to the streets in New York City to demand justice for Trayvon Martin
Marchers took to the streets in New York City to demand justice for Trayvon Martin

New York's was the largest, but not the only demonstration to express the growing anger at Trayvon's killing--and more actions are planned in cities around the country in the coming days.

In Orlando, only a few miles from Sanford, hundreds rallied at a protest organized by the Florida Civil Rights Association to demand that the state to revoke the concealed weapons permit issued to George Zimmerman. Later that night, in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, more than 200 supporters gathered, carrying bags of Skittles and cans of ice tea. "I wanted to come 'armed and dangerous,'" said teacher Suneeta Williams.

The night before, in Sanford itself, some 1,000 people packed a town meeting led by NAACP President Ben Jealous, along with leaders of the ACLU and Nation of Islam. As Jealous told the crowd, "I stand here as a son, father, uncle who is tired of being scared for our boys. I'm tired of telling our young men how they can't dress, where they can't go and how they can't behave."

There were plans for another protest in Sanford on Thursday, this one led by Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network. In Atlanta, activists booked several buses to make the nearly eight-hour drive to Sanford--and sold every seat in advance.

AT UNION Square, thousands of people turned out for the quickly organized protest. The multiracial crowd wore hoodies, scores of people defiantly held up bags of Skittles. One Black youth of elementary school age held a sign asking, "Am I next?" A man held a sign that read, "Racism is not a fringe issue," and listed, "George Zimmerman, NYPD, Newt Gingrich, Jan Brewer, and on and on and on..."

As one protester, Aisha Mays, said:

Things like this happen all the time because Black men are targets. You see the worst of this here, but you also see it everywhere--in the schools, the workplaces. I'm glad that people are here. We have to continue these speakouts and rallies, we have to continue to talk about these issues and bring them out in the open, we have to break down these racist barriers. We have to take action.

Alia, a white woman who attended the rally with her 7-year-old son Sam, said "I've got kids, too, and I know that Trayvon was somebody's baby. We have to be here for them because of that. This is the only way to have a better world."

Sam added: "I'm here because I'm really angry at the man who killed Trayvon. He must be crazy, out of his mind to do what he did. We should protest the government until it gives up and stops racism!"

Speakers at the protest highlighted the racist double standard of police doing a background check and drug/alcohol test on Trayvon, but not on Zimmerman, the shooter. A lawyer for Trayvon's family pointed out that without the support from activists and the hundreds of thousands who signed petitions demanding justice for Trayvon, the case would never have gained the prominence it has.

After he finished speaking, the crowd parted and began chanting "Justice for Trayvon," as Trayvon's parents made their way to the front to speak.

Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, said, "If Trayvon was alive, he'd be on these steps with you rallying for justice. Trayvon Martin did matter. We're aren't going to stop until we get justice for Trayvon!"

His mother Sybrina Fulton thanked the crowd for their support. Choking back tears, she said, "Our son did not commit any crimes...Our son is your son. Justice for Trayvon!"

CHANTING "WE are Trayvon Martin!" the crowd in its thousands poured into the streets to march for justice.

This echoed the chant of "We are Troy Davis!" that rang out in Union Square six months before as about 1,000 people marched in the "Day of Outrage" protest on September 22, the day after the state of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis, an innocent African American man. A number of people at the rally for Trayvon had marched for Troy.

Initially, the march made its way west down 14th Street, taking over two full lanes of traffic. Demonstrators chanted, "They don't care if Black kids die, protect and serve, that's a lie!" Police attempted to corral marchers back onto the sidewalk. They succeeded for a brief time, but were overwhelmed as the crowd took the streets again. Eventually, marchers made their way back to Union Square.

New York has also seen growing anger and action against police abuse and violence at home. There is a growing movement against the racist "stop and frisk" policy of the NYPD, whose 2,000 or so victims each day are overwhelmingly Black or Latino. Plus, activists in the Bronx have organized a number of demonstrations this winter against the police murder of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed Black teenager killed in his own home, and the beating of another Black teen, Jateik Reed.

The spirited demonstration for Trayvon is a further sign that a new movement for racial justice is emerging in New York, as it is in other cities. As protester Lupe Rodriguez said, "People are fed up about hearing these stories of people of color being beat down and shot down by cops. There have been too many of them brought to light in the last couple of months, and Trayvon is the tipping point for these communities."

One influence on the new movement is Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which argues that mass incarceration of people of color is a system of racist social control akin to Jim Crow segregation and slavery. The many signs and chants that drew connections between the murder of Trayvon and instances of police brutality and racism made it clear that people don't view this as an isolated incident but as a broader system of racism and injustice.

As another marcher, Armani Williams, said:

It makes me really angry to be a young Black male who knows that in 2012, I can be shot and killed, and the police don't do anything...Black people are sick of how police terrorize us...This country was built on racism, and honestly, I feel that if the roles were reversed, if it was a white boy named Travis Martin who was killed by a Black man called George Jenkins, without a doubt, the killer in this instance would be in jail right now.

Nicole Colson contributed to this article.

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