A day after President Obama said it was Americans – not politicians – who must launch any “conversation” about gun violence, thousands of people in hundreds of locations began doing just that.
At rallies across the country, people remembered Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot and killed during a confrontation with neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, last year. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the episode, which had stirred months of debate about guns, race, and self defense.
"Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours," Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother, warned the crowd at the New York rally, where music superstars Jay-Z and Beyoncé participated.
In Miami, Trayvon’s father Tracy Martin had a similar message: “I vowed to Trayvon, when he was lying in his casket, that I would use every ounce of energy in my body to seek justice for him. I will fight for Trayvon until the day I die. Not only will I fight for Trayvon, I will fight for your child as well.”
Civil rights leader and MSNBC host Al Sharpton 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.
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 now in place in more than 20 states.
‘‘We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again,’’ the Rev. Sharpton said.
By mid-afternoon Saturday, rallies had remained peaceful, although law enforcement officials had prepared for confrontations. Following Zimmerman’s acquittal a week ago, there had been some vandalism and property damage in Oakland and Los Angeles. Nine people were arrested in Oakland, 14 in Los Angeles.
In his surprise appearance in the White House press room Friday afternoon, Obama said, “I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent.”
“If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family,” he said.
Obama’s lengthy comments to reporters Friday showed his deep personal connection to the case, which many observers say was a clear example of racial profiling.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” he said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
“And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.
For many of those at Saturday’s rallies – especially African Americans – the story has been deeply personal for them as well.
In Washington, hundreds of people braved searing heat, many carrying "Justice for Trayvon Martin" signs, almost all chanting "No justice, no peace," USA Today reported.
Hellen Smith, who came with her 14 year old daughter, said she had mixed emotions about the verdict in the Zimmerman case.
She said jurors may not have had enough evidence to convict, but added that "We have to stand up for any person of any race who has been unjustly murdered."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.