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Martin case resonates in N.O. where unarmed 20-year-old was killed

26th March 2012   ·   0 Comments

Nation, civil rights leaders watch closely as Feds probe shooting of Black teen in Fla.

Furor over the shooting of an unarmed Black teen by a neighborhood watch leader reached a new high last week as civil rights leaders and protesters flocked to Florida to attend a massive march for justice, a town hall meeting was held in Sanford, Fla., another march was held in New York City and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to probe the incident.

After declaring victories in getting federal and state officials to investigate the case of Trayvon Martin, civil rights leaders and hundreds of thousands of protesters across the nation continued to pressure authorities to make an arrest.

At a town hall meeting Tuesday evening in Sanford, Fla., where the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin took place on Sunday, Feb. 26,, officials from the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nation of Islam urged residents to remain calm but demand that the shooter, George Zimmerman, be arrested.

Zimmerman, 28, has not been charged in the shooting and told authorities that he shot Martin, who was returning to a gated community in the city after buying candy at a convenience store, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Police said Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.

“I stand here as a son, father, uncle who is tired of being scared for our boys,” said Benjamin Jealous, national president of the NAACP. “I’m tired of telling our young men how they can’t dress, where they can’t go and how they can’t behave.”

The case has ignited a furor against the police department of this Orlando suburb of 53,500 people, prompting rallies and a protest in Gov. Rick Scott’s office Tuesday. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it is sending its community relations service last week to Sanford to “address tension in the community.”

Earlier in the week, the federal agency opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, and in Florida, Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.

“We are pleased the Department of Justice has heeded our calls and agreed to investigate this outrageous case,” Jealous said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “The rules of justice in this nation have failed when an innocent teenage boy can be shot to death by a vigilante and no arrest is made for weeks.”

At the town hall meeting, more than 350 people packed into the Allen Chapel AME Church. People jumped to their feet and cheered when local NAACP leader Turner Clayton Jr. said the federal Justice Department should not only review the investigation but also take over the Sanford Police Department.

Other civil rights leaders said the city’s police chief should step down.

“This is just the beginning of what is taking place,” Clayton said. “We’re going to make sure justice prevails.”

When The Associated Press tried to reach the police department Tuesday evening for comment, a dispatcher told a reporter to call in the morning.

Earlier Tuesday, an attorney for Martin’s family revealed the teenager told his girlfriend just moments before he was killed that he was being followed.

“’Oh he’s right behind me, he’s right behind me again,”” 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told his girlfriend on his cell phone, attorney Benjamin Crump said.

The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” Another man asked, “What are you doing around here?”” Crump said.

Crump told reporters Tuesday Martin cried out when a man bearing a 9mm handgun came at him. Police said Zimmerman, who was found bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, told authorities he yelled out for help before shooting Martin.

“She absolutely blows Zim­merman’s absurd self-defense claim out of the water,” Crump said of Martin’s girlfriend, whose name was withheld.

Martin, who was in town from Miami to visit his father in Sanford, called his 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami several times on Feb. 26, including just before the shooting, Crump said. The discovery of the lengthy conversations, including one moments before the shooting, was made over the weekend by Martin’s father, who checked his son’s cell phone log, Crump said.

The teenager told the girl on his way back from the store he’d taken shelter from the rain briefly at an apartment building in his father’s gated community, Crump said. Martin then told her he was being followed and would try to lose the person, Crump said.

“She says: ‘Run.’ He says, ‘I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast,’” Crump said, quoting the girl.

After Martin encountered Zimmerman, the girl thought she heard a scuffle “because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech,” Crump said. The phone call ended before the girl heard gunshots.

The last call was at 7:12 p.m. Police arrived at 7:17 p.m. to find Martin lying face down on the ground.

Zimmerman was handcuffed after police arrived and taken into custody for questioning, but was released by police without being charged. Police have interviewed Zimmerman twice since then.

Crump called the treatment patently unfair and asked if Martin would have received the same treatment if he had been the shooter.

“We will not rest until he is arrested. The more time that passes, this is going to be swept under the rug,” Crump said.

Crump said he plans to turn over information about the call to federal investigators; a grand jury in Seminole County is also likely to subpoena the records. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also involved in the state case.

Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.

In this case, they said, it’s not clear whether Zimmerman had any actual law enforcement authority or if the Sanford Police Department did anything improper. Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.

“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”

Authorities may be hamstrung by a state “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force and does not require a retreat in the face of danger. Asked Tuesday if that law needs change, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said “it’s always positive to go back and think about existing laws.”

During the town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson promised the law’s repeal would be a top priority for the state legislature’s Black caucus.

“If vigilante justice becomes the norm, will visitors feel comfortable coming to our state?” she said.

An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zim­merman had drawn more than 700,000 signatures at website as of early Wednesday. About 50 defense attorneys and protesters filled the lobby in the governor’s office Tuesday to deliver a letter seeking an independent investigation and a task force to study racial profiling. They applauded when Scott came out of his office to talk to them.

“I will make sure justice prevails,” Scott said. “I’m very comfortable that (state law enforcement) is going to do the right thing. They’re not going to let somebody do something wrong and get away with it.”

Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, believe George Zimmerman should have been arrested. They claim Zimmerman was profiling their son and acted like a vigilante.

The lack of an arrest has outraged residents who claim the Sanford Police Department has a history of ignoring the Black community’s concerns. City commissioners gave the police chief a vote of no confidence on Wednesday. The commission can’t fire the chief because he reports to the city manager. The city manager said he will take the 3-2 vote under consideration.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee said at a news conference Thursday that he is stepping down temporarily because he has become a distraction.

Lee has been criticized after police did not arrest George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot an unarmed black teen to death on Feb. 26.

The police chief has said authorities were prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time of the shooting.

Hours later, the prosecutor recused himself from the case. Norman Wolfinger said in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that his departure was aimed at “toning down the rhetoric” in the case.
Of Sanford’s 53,000 residents, 57 percent are white and 30 percent are Black.

Some residents have proposed boycotting the Sanford Police Department by asking 911 dispatchers to send county sheriff’s officers rather than the Sanford police.

And Martin’s family said the resignations don’t’ go nearly far enough. They repeated demands Thursday that Zimmerman be charged.

“We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son,” Martin’s father, Tracy, said.

“There is no trust,” said Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County’s NAACP. “There is no confidence.”

“They’re as crooked as a barrel of fishhooks,” said Black resident Lula King. She told a group of residents at Wednesday’s town hall meeting that her teenage grandson is regularly pulled over by police officers who think he is in a gang because of the red-and-black hats he wears.

“There are two sides to every story, but they don’t get but one side,” said King, 75.

On Wednesday, Trayvon Martin’s parents were in New York City, where hundreds gathered to protest the teen’s murder and demand justice in what was dubbed the Million Hoodie March, Trayvon Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt at the time of his death.

My son did not deserve to die,” Tracy Martin said Wednesday after thanking the hundreds of people who participated in a march in the teenager’s memory, a sign of growing outrage over the shooting.

The demonstrators in NYC’s Union Square greeted the teen’s parents with “God bless you!”

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, told the crowd: “My heart is in pain, but to see the support of all of you really makes a difference.”

The march splintered into various groups, with some demonstrators heading to Times Square to hold an impromptu rally and dozens of others making their way to downtown Manhattan. At times, it appeared the march had become indistinguishable from an Occupy event, with some protesters climbing atop the Wall Street bull sculpture.

Tracy Martin, asked Wednesday how he was holding up, said he was trying to stay strong.

“I don’t feel this is the time to break down, even though it’s a very troubling time in my life,” he said. “I’ve told myself, ‘When I get justice for Trayvon, then I’ll have my time to break down.’”

The Associated Press reported last week that since Martin’s death, hundreds of thousands of messages have been exchanged calling for justice in the case and support for his family.

Martin’s parents even started an online petition on demanding Zimmerman’s arrest.

By Thursday it had collected more than 1.2 million signatures.

Tracy Christensen, of Colorado, posted a message on the “Justice For Trayvon Martin” Facebook page, which had more than 50,000 “likes.”

“The entire country is behind you. Trayvon did not die in vain and he will not be forgotten. Justice will be served.”

She said it was the first time she used social media to take part in a protest.

“To bring nationwide, and perhaps worldwide attention to it so that the Justice (Department) and FBI get a move on,” she wrote. “Time is passing while a child murderer is walking free. Social media gives the people the power they never had before.”

Filmmakers Michael Moore and Spike Lee have also posted messages in support of Martin.

Twitter messages about Martin have been mentioned almost 600,000 times, according to the social media monitoring firm PeopleBrowsr. On Facebook, some protesters are wearing hoodies in their profile photos with the caption, “Do I look suspicious?”

Megan Lubin, a spokesman for, said the traffic on the Martin petition was one of their fastest-growing ever.

“What you’re seeing is that the Trayvon Martin case speaks to people around the country just like it speaks to people in this community,” NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Jealous said. “It would have been easy for people here to say ‘He wasn’t one of us. I didn’t know him. My kids didn’t go to school with him.’ But instead people here are saying what people said around the world, which is he reminds me of my cousin, of my son, or my grandson.”

Jeanette Castillo, an assistant professor of digital media at Florida State University, studied the Occupy Wall Street from a social media perspective and is also tracking the Martin case on Twitter.

She told The Associated Press that the Martin case has played out in a protest era that will be increasingly driven by online audiences and their activism.

“You can hear about an issue in traditional media and be outraged. But in social media you have immediate feedback of how much your friends are outraged,” Castillo said. “It’s just a huge facet of social media that affects that mobilization. It’s sort of the same thing as word of mouth, but just at a lightning speed.”

Recent research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows why this case might be particularly resonating for the Black Internet audience.

Aaron Smith, a senior researcher for Pew Internet, said a study updated last month shows that 15 percent of all Internet users nationally use Twitter, including eight percent on a typical day.

White users are generally in line with the national average with 12 percent using the service or seven percent on a typical day.

By contrast, Black Internet users have very high rates of Twitter usage, with more than a quarter of them using Twitter overall and 13 percent of the Black online population using Twitter on a typical day.

“It’s a bit different data than we’ve seen historically,” Smith said. “For a long time it was always digital divide story. But with social (media) we’re finding the Black community on par with or ahead of their white counterparts with usage.”

An estimated 8,000 people gathered at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford on Thursday night to join their voices with a purpose and to hear the Rev. Al Sharpton talk about the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Sharpton, an MSNBC commentator, civil-rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, took the podium nearly an hour into the rally and stirred the crowd.

“Twenty-six days ago, this young man Trayvon Martin … went to the store for his brother. He came back and lost his life,” Sharpton told the cheering crowd. “Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives.”

Sharpton said he was angry at the handling of this case, and frustrated that George Zimmerman, the crime-watch volunteer who shot Trayvon, had not been arrested.

“Enough is enough,” Sharpton said. “Zimmerman should have been arrested that night. You cannot defend yourself against a pack of Skittles and iced tea.”

Fighting back tears, and looking scared and nervous, Fulton started with a Bible verse.

“I stand before you today not knowing how I’m walking right now because my heart hurts for my son,” Fulton said. “Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son. Thanks so much for your support.”

Unlike his counterpart in New Orleans who called NOPD officers who were shot during an incident that the life of a 20-year-old Black man “heroes,” Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett has been open with the media about the Martin shooting and vowed to see the case through.

Triplett pledged to the crowd Thursday night that he was committed to finding justice in Trayvon’s slaying.

“We’re truly working on the right steps, I feel, right now,” Triplett said. “The true point right now is to find justice.”

The Trayvon Martin case resonates in cities across the U.S. like New Orleans, where two Black 20-year-olds — Justin Sipp and Wendell Allen — were killed by police within a six-day period. Sipp was killed on his way to work at 5:30 a.m. while Wendell Allen was shot by an officer on the second-floor staircase of his home. Allen was not armed, police later admitted. Police contend that Sipp fired 14 shots at several NOPD officers, although it is not clear why the cameras attached to the police cars had been turned off before the exchange of gunfire.

New Orleans activist and cable-access talk-show host W.C. Johnson called the two police killings “public executions.”

“In the case of the Sipp and Allen murders, NOPD was sending a clear message to the Black community that the police are in charge and above the law,” Johnson, who is also a member of Community United for Change, said in a commentary last week. “It is also a message that Black life is not valued the way white life is valued. This is not conjecture, this is not theory; this is fact. Just look at the evidence…

“Wake up people, wake up Black folks,” Johnson continued. “In 2012 Black people are being murdered the way Black folks were murdered in 1888, 1898, 1922, 1943, 1955, 1966, and all the years in between and since as the murders continue at alarming rates. Where are the mothers and fathers, husbands and wives who historically refused to accept the status quos excuses for the murdering of their loved ones? Have Black folks’ ability to care suddenly stopped?”

Johnson and other New Orleans activists have accused the Landrieu administration of using Black ministers to pressure the family of Wendell Allen to accept money from the city to pay for Wendell Allen’s funeral after the family initially turned down the city’s offer of financial assistance. Johnson also criticized the mayor for attending the Allen funeral while pledging his support for the city’s embattled police chief whose leadership skills have been questioned by many residents over the past few years.

“The thought of having the person responsible for your son’s death sitting in the same church, at the funeral of your beloved son, is beyond imagination,” Johnson said. “The audacity of the people responsible for your loved one’s death coming to the funeral is an insult and adds injury to the family’s healing and private time.”

President Barack Obama weighed in on the death of Trayvon Martin late last week, calling it a “tragedy.”

“I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” President Obama said. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.

“So I’m glad that not only is the Justice Department looking into it, I understand now that the governor of the state of Florida has formed a task force to investigate what’s taking place. I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.

“But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

This article was originally published in the March 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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