ATLANTA (AP) — One week after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, people gathered for nationwide rallies to press for changes to self-defense laws and for federal civil rights charges against the former neighborhood watch leader.
The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defense laws, guns, and race relations. Zimmerman, who successfully claimed self-defense, identifies as Hispanic. Martin was black.
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 base of the federal courthouse, with traffic blocked on surrounding downtown streets.
Most rallies were scheduled for noon local times. Hundreds of people — including music superstars Jay-Z and Beyonce, as well as Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton — gathered in New York.
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 said to the rally 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 addition to pushing the Justice Department to investigate civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Sharpton told supporters he wants to see a rollback of stand-your-ground 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 laws eliminate a person’s duty to retreat in the face of a serious physical threat.
Zimmerman did not invoke Florida’s stand-your-ground law, instead relying on a traditional self-defense argument. Nor was race discussed in front of the jury that acquitted Zimmerman. But the two topics have dominated public discourse about the case, and came up throughout Saturday’s rallies.
Part of Sharpton’s comments echoed those made by President Barack Obama on the case yesterday. “Racial profiling is not as bad as segregation, but you don’t know the humiliation of being followed in a department store,” Sharpton said.
In Indianapolis, the Rev. Jeffrey Johnson told about 200 attendees that the nationwide effort is about making life safer for young black men. Johnson said young black men still are endangered by racial profiling, and he compared Zimmerman’s acquittal to that of four white officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992.
“The verdict freed George Zimmerman, but it condemned America more,” said Johnson, pastor of the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis and a member of the board of directors of the National Action Network.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that his department would investigate whether Zimmerman could be charged under federal civil rights laws. Such a case would require evidence that Zimmerman harbored racial animosity against Martin. Most legal experts say that would be a difficult charge to bring.
Holder said the shooting demonstrates the need to re-examine stand-your-ground laws.
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