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Zimmerman verdict prompts hundreds to rally to remember - and to act

Hundreds of people gathered near the St. Louis Justice Center on Sunday to decry the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman was found not guilty on Saturday night of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Martin.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2013: Tamika Brison had a gut feeling that she wouldn’t be happy with the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who touched off a nationwide controversy when he was put on trial for the death of Trayvon Martin.

But even though the St. Louis native wasn’t necessarily surprised by Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, it didn’t stop her from feeling disheartened.

“I didn’t know I’d be so emotionally attached after the fact, after the verdict was read,” Brison said. “I think it’s because I’m a mother, for one. And I have nephews. And I have countless male cousins. And I just felt like it touched home for me. It really did.”

Brison wasn’t the only person in St. Louis who felt affected. She was one of hundreds of people who gathered near the St. Louis Justice Center on Sunday night to remember and pay respect for Martin – and mobilize for change.

Zimmerman was found not guilty Saturday night for the shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin. Six female jurors had the option of convicting Zimmerman of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The Zimmerman case was the subject of intense national focus over the past 16 months, putting a spotlight on the issues of neighborhood watch groups, the use of firearms in self-defense and racial profiling.

Zimmerman and his attorneys contended he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin last year during an altercation in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman's attorneys also stated that prosecutors didn't even come close to proving that their client was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The verdict drew hundreds to the rally, which was part of a nationwide reaction to the verdict. The gathering stretched from the steps of the Justice Center into the median of Tucker Boulevard.

Police shut down the street and kept watch from afar. KTVI reported that four people were arrested for failure to disperse and failure to obey the reasonable direction of law enforcement.

Participants chanted, prayed and marched throughout the early evening. Some carried signs comparing Martin's death to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American youth murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. One person carried a cutout of President Barack Obama with Skittles and ice tea -- what Martin was carrying -- taped on the chief executive's hands.

Some participants – such as Jason Keith Coleman – saw the verdict as a call for action.

“Some people ask about this demonstration and say ‘Why ya’ll going down there? It’s not going to change nothing,’” said Coleman, a youth pastor at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church. “But if you look around at every last one of us, we’re not the same color. But we’re all standing right here for the same situation. It doesn’t matter your race. It doesn’t matter your background.

“Dr. King said it best. If there’s an injustice somewhere, there’s injustice everywhere,” he added. "If we don’t stand for something, then we’ll fall for anything.”

The rally was publicized throughout the city and beyond through social media. Ferguson resident Janelle Pittman – who initially posted the event on Facebook – said she was “not surprised and disgusted all at the same time” by the verdict.

“Our justice system fails in every way,” Pittman said. “The only way to change the world that we exist in is to unite as communities and to get out in the streets together – and to demand change. That’s the only thing that’s going to make change happen.”

'I cried'

While Pittman and Brison say they weren’t surprised by the verdict, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, had a different reaction to the news.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, leads a march around the St. Louis Justice Center. "What do we want?" Nasheed asked. "Justice!" yelled the crowd. "When do we want it?" she inquired. "Now!" the crowd shouted.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

“I cried. I literally cried,” she said. “I mean, I couldn’t control myself.”

Nasheed said that she “knew that justice was going to take its course. I believed that in my heart.” But she said “after seeing the verdict, justice was not blind and not balanced.”

“It brought racial profiling to the forefront,” Nasheed said. “And all of us should be doing all that we can do to make sure that this never happens again. Because he was an innocent man. And the only thing he wanted was some Skittles and tea – and he wanted just to go back home. And for Zimmerman to profile him, stalk him and follow him after the dispatch told him not to do that, he didn’t follow the law.”

In a statement on his Facebook page, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said his “prayers are with the Martin family.”

“A young person died senselessly,” Slay wrote. “His death, the trial, the verdict, the law -- these must be elements of a national discussion about violence, guns, race, and the kind of country we want to be.”

After calling the death of Martin a “tragedy,” Obama said in a statement “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has 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.  We should ask ourselves 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.  We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.” 

“As citizens, that’s a job for all of us,” he added.

What’s next?

Besides pledging to beat back any version of a “Stand Your Ground” law in the Missouri Senate, Nasheed said the verdict should be a chance for the black community to look within itself.

She alluded to some recent acts of violence throughout the region – including a shooting that killed a 9-year-old boy and a hit-and-run that killed a child in the Metro East – as events that should give people pause.

“It was a senseless murder. And we have senseless murders not just by way of individuals profiling, but by way of black-on-black violence,” Nasheed said. “And what I would like to just say to everybody is, we need take heed. Black folks need to step up to the plate and begin to have a little self-love and self-worth. Because I don’t see that happening throughout our neighborhoods – we have individuals killing each other each and every day.”

Coleman said the peaceful reaction to the Zimmerman verdict shows that "we can band together and we can change this world."

"Yes, we can stand as one," said Coleman. "Not as a divided race. Not as this race over here. But we can stand as one race, under one God in this country and fight the injustice that is going on everywhere around us."

Brison said she was heartened by the turnout.

“I believe there’s strength in numbers. Honestly. This is a good amount of people. But I believe the more people vocalize what they feel, the more people will take notice,” Brison said.

She went onto echo some of Nasheed’s sentiments, stating “we have to start with ourselves before we can look to outside sources to accomplish what needs to go on in our community.”

“So as whole, I would think I would want them to look at this situation and take something from it,” Brison said. “Whether you’re a mother, whether you’re a local community activist or teacher – whatever the case may be.”

“Change starts at your own address,” she added. “You’ve got to start with yourself.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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