Thursday 25 December 2014

'Justice for Trayvon' rallies in US

Published 19/07/2013 | 19:42

People gather in front of the federal court in Washington as they demonstrate in the Justice for Trayvon - 100 City Vigil (AP)
People gather in front of the federal court in Washington as they demonstrate in the Justice for Trayvon - 100 City Vigil (AP)
Mya Chavis, left, adjusts the hood of a jacket while sitting with Danyse Ryan as they wait for a rally to start in Jersey City, New Jersey (AP)
Protesters after a rally in Oakland, California (AP/Bay Area News Group, Jane Tyska)
A woman holds a candle during a vigil in Oakland, California (AP/Bay Area News Group, Jose Carlos Fajardo)
Barack Obama speaks at the White House about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin (AP)

One week after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty over the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, people gathered for rallies across the US to press for changes to self-defence laws and for federal civil rights charges against the former neighbourhood watch leader.

The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defence laws, guns and race relations. Mr Zimmerman, who successfully claimed self-defence, identifies as Hispanic. Trayvon was black.

The National Action Network, led by civil rights activist the Rev Al Sharpton, organised the Justice for Trayvon rallies and vigils outside federal buildings in at least 101 cities: from New York and Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas, and Atlanta, where people stood in the rain at the base of the federal courthouse, with traffic blocked on surrounding city streets.

Most rallies were scheduled for noon local times. Hundreds of people - including music superstars Jay-Z and Beyonce, as well as Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton - gathered in New York.

Ms Fulton told the crowd she was determined to fight for societal and legal changes needed to ensure that black youths are no longer viewed with suspicion because of their skin colour. "I promise you I'm going to work for your children as well," she said to the rally crowd. At a morning appearance at Mr Sharpton's headquarters in Harlem, she implored people to understand that the tragedy involved more than Trayvon alone. "Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours," she said.

In addition to pushing the justice department to investigate federal civil rights charges against Mr Zimmerman, Mr Sharpton told supporters he wants to see a rollback of stand-your-ground self-defence laws. "We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again," Mr Sharpton said. Stand-your-ground laws are on the books in more than 20 states, and they go beyond many older, traditional self-defence statutes. In general, the laws eliminate a person's duty to retreat if they fear death or bodily harm.

Mr Zimmerman did not invoke Florida's stand-your-ground law, instead relying on a traditional self-defence argument in which he claimed that he shot Trayvon after the teenager struck him in an altercation at night in a gated community in February 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Nor was race discussed in front of the jury that acquitted Mr Zimmerman. But the two topics have dominated public discourse about the case, and came up throughout Saturday's rallies.

Part of Mr Sharpton's comments echoed those made by president Barack Obama on the case on Friday. "Racial profiling is not as bad as segregation, but you don't know the humiliation of being followed in a department store," Mr Sharpton said.

Mr Obama called on the nation to do some soul-searching over the death of Trayvon and the acquittal of his shooter, saying the killed black teenager "could have been me 35 years ago". Empathising with the pain of many black Americans, Mr Obama said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice "that doesn't go away". Mr Obama, in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, spoke poignantly about the distrust that shadows many African-American men, saying that they can draw nervous stares in lifts and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street. "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store," he said. "That includes me."

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that his department would investigate whether Mr Zimmerman could be charged under federal civil rights laws. Such a case would require evidence that Mr Zimmerman harboured racial animosity against Trayvon. Most legal experts say that would be a difficult charge to bring. Mr Holder said the shooting demonstrates the need to re-examine stand-your-ground laws.

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