The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defense, guns, and race relations. Zimmerman, who successfully claimed that he was protecting himself when he shot Martin, identifies himself as Hispanic. Martin was black.
For some attendees, particularly those who are black, the rallies seemed as much about those larger issues as about the verdict.
“It’s personal,” said Cincinnati resident Chris Donegan, whose 11-year-old son wore a hoodie to the rally, as Martin did the night he died. “Anybody who is black with kids, Trayvon Martin became our son.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network organized the “Justice for Trayvon” rallies and vigils outside federal buildings in at least 101 cities: from New York and Los Angeles to Wichita, Kan., and Atlanta, where people stood in the rain at the bases of two federal buildings, with traffic blocked on surrounding downtown streets.
Chants rang out across the rallies. “Justice! Justice! Justice! ... Now! Now! Now!” “‘We won’t forget.” “No justice! No peace!” Many also sang hymns, prayed and held hands.
And plenty of participants carried signs: “Who’s next?” “I am Trayvon Martin.” “Enough Is Enough.”
Most rallies began at noon. In New York, hundreds of people — including Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and music superstars Jay-Z and Beyonce — gathered in the heat.
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 color.
“I promise you I’m going to work for your children as well,” she told the crowd.
At a morning appearance at Sharpton’s headquarters in Harlem, she implored people to understand that the tragedy involved more than Martin alone. “Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours,” she said.
In Atlanta, speakers noted that the rally occurred in the shadows of federal buildings named for two figures who had vastly differing views on civil rights and racial equality: Richard B. Russell was a Georgia governor and U.S. senator elected in the Jim Crow South; Martin Luther King Jr. is the face of African-Americans’ civil rights movement.
“What’s so frightening about a black man in a hood?” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who now occupies the pulpit at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“History would suggest that we have plenty of data to be worried when we see other folk moving through our neighborhoods in hoods. Some of them have on pinstripe suits — but in their hearts, they’re wearing a hood.”
In addition to pushing the Justice Department to investigate civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Sharpton told supporters in New York that he wants to see a rollback of “stand-yourground” self-defense laws.
“We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again,” Sharpton said.
“Stand-your-ground” laws are on the books in more than 20 states, and they go beyond many older, traditional self-defense statutes. In general, the newer laws eliminate a person’s duty to retreat, if possible, in the face of a physical threat.