Crowds chanted "Justice! Justice!" as they rallied in dozens of U.S. cities Saturday, urging authorities to change self-defence laws and press federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, a former neighbourhood watch leader found not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The Florida case has become a flashpoint in separate but converging national debates over self-defence laws, guns, and race relations. Zimmerman, who successfully claimed self-defence, identifies as Hispanic. Martin was black.
"It's personal," said Cincinnati resident Chris Donegan, whose 11-year-old son wore a black hoodie to the rally, as Martin did when he died. "Anybody who is black with kids, Trayvon Martin became our son."
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Several thousand people endured rain in downtown Atlanta as Rev. Raphael Warnock asked several thousand attendees of Saturday's rally what was so scary about a black man in a hood.
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.
At the rally in Washington D.C., James Teal called his country one of the "most racist countries in the world."
"From Martin Luther King days up to now, really nothing has changed," he told CBC News. "Today is a day to spark outrage so we can bring some kind of federal charges."
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 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.
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In Miami, Tracy Martin spoke about his son.
"This could be any one of our children," he said. "Our mission now is to make sure that this doesn't happen to your child."
He recalled how he vowed to Trayvon as he lay in his casket that he would seek justice.
"I will continue to fight for Trayvon until the day I die," he said.
Shantescia Hill held a sign in Miami that read: "Every person deserves a safe walk home." The 31-year-old mother, who is black, said, "I'm here because our children can't even walk on the streets without fearing for their lives."
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.
At the New Orleans rally, La'Monte Johnson shared some of the same experiences.
The California native said he's been stopped multiple times by police and handcuffed "because I fit the description of someone they were looking for," though he noted charges were never filed against him.
"You can be the greatest black guy around, but you can't get away from it," he said. "You're not equal."
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.
Despite the pledges from politicians and civil rights groups, people at some rallies said they had little hope of seeing self-defense laws rolled back significantly.
Kevin Parker, a 50-year-old from Stone Mountain, Ga., noted the conservative influence in his state, where gun-friendly Republicans control both legislative chambers and hold all statewide offices.
"Being that this is a red state, I just don't see that happening," he said.
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