George Zimmerman’s acquittal Saturday night on all charges in the killing of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, sparked deep emotional reactions across the country Sunday, resurrecting an intense national debate about the role of race and racism in American life.
President Obama declared Martin’s killing an American tragedy but called for calm.
From church pews to street corners to the sprawling social-media universe, Americans expressed outrage, disgust and, in some cases, relief at the verdict. Rallies and vigils were held in Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles as well as in Sanford, Fla., where the killing and the trial took place. Others were scheduled in Boston, Detroit and Baltimore.
“I grew up in Georgia, and what happened to Trayvon would be the norm for any black man in Georgia,” said James Ealey, 73, recalling an earlier, more segregated nation. “That was the way it was. We are going backwards. We are not in a post-racial America just because of Barack Obama,” he said after Sunday services at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.
The White House issued a statement in which Obama characterized Martin’s death as “a tragedy . . . not just for his family . . . but for America.” The president acknowledged that “passions may be running ever higher” in the wake of the verdict but urged citizens to remember that a jury had spoken.
“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” Obama said. “And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities . . . 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. . . . That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
The verdict did little to close the stark divisions the case opened up among Americans along the jagged fissures of race and personal safety — starting when Martin was shot about 18 months ago.
A Zimmerman attorney argued throughout the case that race had little bearing on the initial confrontation or the outcome. But the case has played out against a racially charged backdrop since Zimmerman followed the unarmed Martin as he walked through his central Florida neighborhood and later said a confrontation led him to shoot Martin in self-defense.
As one side sees it, a racially biased criminal justice system was slow to charge Zimmerman and quick to believe a white man’s version of events. The other side sees in Zimmerman a law-abiding citizen who tried to protect his neighborhood and properly claimed his right to carry a weapon in self-defense.
Protesters across the country decried what they called the injustice of Zimmerman’s acquittal. They insisted that something must change in a court system and body of law that would allow an armed and self-appointed neighborhood watchman to pursue a black teenager, based on the suspicion that he was up to no good, and kill him.
A group called the Coalition for Justice for Trayvon hosted a rally Sunday afternoon at the Seminole County courthouse, where a jury of six women acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder. In Washington, critics of the verdict were pumping fists and chanting along the U Street corridor early Sunday morning. Among the placards they carried were these two messages: “Stop criminalizing black men” and “Only White Life is Protected in America.”
The NAACP began circulating a petition late Saturday asking Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to take action in the case as the group held its annual conference in Orlando.
“It is time for the Department of Justice to act,” the petition says. “The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin.”
During a vigil Sunday night at Howard University, students, community members and alumni honored Martin with a moment of silence and the hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Then Taylor Davis, a Howard student who is president of the school’s NAACP chapter, delivered a rousing address that had the crowd shouting in affirmation.
“We will honor the voice of the jury, but we will put ourselves in a position where they will honor our voices as well. Make noise,” she said. She urged her listeners to sign the petition and to register to vote so that they can cast ballots against lawmakers who support legislation like the “stand your ground” law that protected Zimmerman.