Vigils held across US over Trayvon Martin verdict

Vigils held across US over Trayvon Martin verdict

MIAMI, Florida - Agence France-Presse
Vigils held across US over Trayvon Martin verdict

People carry a photo of Trayvon Martin during a march to protest the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Los Angeles July 20, 2013. Celebrities and hundreds of protesters on Saturday participated in rallies across the country to express anger over the acquittal of Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Martin. REUTERS/David McNew

Hundreds of people attended peaceful vigils in several US cities Saturday to protest a not-guilty verdict in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

The protests -- called to press for federal action in the emotionally charged case -- drew small but fervent crowds in New York, Washington and Miami where the slain teen's father spoke.

"The death of my son, we believe, has to make changes in our society and repeal the laws that allow to kill somebody just because someone thinks (he) is suspect," Tracy Martin said in Miami.

Superstar couple Jay Z and Beyonce joined a crowd of several thousand at a Manhattan rally addressed by Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and civil rights leader Al Sharpton.

Briefly overcome with emotion as she thanked the crowd for turning out, Fulton vowed to keep fighting to ensure her son's death leads to meaningful change but pleaded for campaigners to ensure the protests did not spill over into unrest.

"Trayvon would be proud," she told the crowd. "Not only do I have to do what I have to do for Trayvon, I'm going to work for your children as well." In Miami, between 300 and 500 people turned out for the rally outside the city's civic center, wearing T-shirts with pictures of Trayvon and messages like "We want justice, equal justice." But a heavy downpour dispersed the crowd just after noon, and some participants expressed disappointment at the small turnout near the historic African American neighborhood of Overton.

"You see only black people, when this should be a Hispanic, white issue," said Marie Falaise, 39, a Miami resident born in Haiti.

The protests came a day after President Barack Obama publicly identified with the slain 17-year-old and the deep frustrations felt among African Americans over the verdict.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama told reporters Friday.

The president's remarks -- his most expansive since a Florida jury's decision one week ago to acquit neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman -- was applauded by many at Saturday's vigils.

"I felt that in the past he has been hesitant and tried to ride the line and not offend anyone," said Sonya Olange, a 45-year-old mother of two at the Manhattan rally, told AFP.

"But his job as president is to set the tone for changing these laws and, as a black man, he did what he should have done." Praising the "incredible grace and dignity" shown by Martin's parents through the ordeal, Obama said "some soul-searching" on race was in order and it was understandable that there be protests and vigils.

But he said a resort to violence would "dishonor" Martin's death.

The 29-year-old Zimmerman, who said he acted in self defense, fatally shot Martin in the chest on the rainy night of February 26, 2012, during an altercation in a gated community in Sanford, Florida.

A jury of six women, all but one white, cleared him of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

The vigils outside court houses and government buildings were organized to maintain public pressure for a federal civil rights investigation into the killing.

Organizers also are targeting "Stand Your Ground" laws like Florida's, which asserts that citizens can use lethal force -- rather than retreat -- if they sense their lives are at risk.

"We are not going to be silent, we'll stand up for what's right, we'll stand up for justice," Sharpton said at the New York rally. "If you mess with one of the children, the family has to come in and protect them." "Like Jay Z told me, he is a father. Beyonce is a mother. We all have children and we feel the fear and apprehension. The laws must protect everyone," he added.

Obama did not comment directly on the Florida verdict but he called for a review of the controversial state self-defense laws.

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" Obama said.

"And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?" The teen's parents said they were "deeply honored and moved" by Obama's comments.

"President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy," they said in a statement.

"We seek a future when a child can walk down the street and not worry that others see him as dangerous because of the color of his skin or the clothes on his back." pb-bur/jm/vlk AFP