CHICAGO – Protesters and clergy in Chicago said Sunday that the acquittal in George Zimmerman’s murder trial was symbolic of lingering racism in the United States and larger injustices in the black community.
About 200 people turned out for a noisy but peaceful rally and march in downtown Chicago to protest a Florida jury’s decision to clear Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Meanwhile, the city’s black clergy called for calm, though a police spokesman said there were no reports of violence after Saturday evening’s verdict.
“I thought that the verdict was unbelievable, I wasn’t expecting it,” said Naazima Muhammed, 59. “The whole world was disappointed because, if you have a gun, how do you fear for your life? [Martin] was only a kid.”
Zimmerman claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed the teen, who was returning home from the store in February 2012.
Martin’s death unleashed debate across the U.S. over racial profiling, self-defense and justice.
Maya Miller, 73, said the case reminds her of the 1955 slaying of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was murdered by a group of white men while visiting Mississippi. Till’s death galvanized the civil rights movement.
“Fifty-eight years and nothing’s changed,” Miller said, pausing to join a chant to “Justice for Trayvon, not one more.”
Black clergy across Chicago encouraged the protesters to remain peaceful, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson saying any violence would shift the sympathy from Martin to Zimmerman. He said the decision “is a pattern involving young African- American men that is too often repeating itself. In my opinion, the American legal system has once again failed justice.”
“I hope that no one will compound our pain with street justice. It will do damage to the innocent blood and legacy of Trayvon Martin,” Jackson said. “The struggle for fairness and justice is not over. Justice will come to those who continue to struggle for it.”
Pastor Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, on Chicago’s West Side, said violence would only hurt Chicago already devastated by dozens of shooting deaths this year.
“While we cannot control the verdict ... we can control our streets and communities,” Acree said. “We can change things. Change comes from within and that change must start with us.”
Pastors said at a news conference that Zimmerman’s acquittal, along with Illinois’ new concealed carry law, are raising fears in the black community that vigilante justice is acceptable, with Pastor Bernard Jakes of West Point Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood saying it adds to the tension in communities already are struggling with black-on-black violence.
“If someone decides they don’t like what you look like,” they could shoot “instead of understanding who you are,” Jakes said. “This verdict says it’s OK to pursue, hunt and kill black men. It sends a message the black life is of no value.”
Illinois lawmakers last week overrode Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of a bill that makes the state the last in the nation to permit concealed carry of weapons. Permits are not yet being issued. The Chicago Democrat had demanded stricter rules in the law.
Quinn discussed Martin’s death at a suburban Chicago church on Sunday shortly after appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where he called for an examination of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
He told congregants of Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip that he agreed with Martin’s father, who said his heart was broken but his faith remained unshattered.
“Our hearts are broken,” he said. “A young man lost his life to gun violence ... It’s important that we pray for his family.”
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this story.