Protest in New York City’s Union Square against the killing of Trayvon Martin. Francis Reynolds/The Nation
More than 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Union Square Wednesday night to show solidarity with the bereaved family of Trayvon Martin and to call for the arrest and prosecution of George Zimmerman, the self-styled neighborhood watchman who shot and killed him almost a month ago. The US Justice Department is one of several agencies now looking into the incident.
Zimmerman, armed with an 9mm pistol, was on patrol in his SUV in a gated housing community in the small town of Sanford, Florida, when he called 911 asking for police to assist him because he was watching a suspicious individual. The calls, now publicly available, capture Zimmerman calling people he thought did not belong in the neighborhood “fucking coons,” and the 911 operator specifically telling him not to follow Martin. Ignoring the operator’s advice, Zimmerman followed Martin even though he knew police were enroute. Terrified residents can be heard on other recordings, as they asked for police to come see what was going on. Cries of “Help me!” can be heard in the background, which Zimmerman claims were his, but Martin’s family say were their son’s. Local police soon arrived on the scene, finding Martin dead from a single bullet fired by Zimmerman, but did not press charges against the latter, who claimed he shot in self-defence.
Martin’s killing was the latest in what some demonstrators described as a pattern of unarmed black men being killed, often by law enforcement. Last month, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was killed by New York police officers in his grandmother’s Bronx home after they chased him. Officers claim they thought Graham was armed.
On Wednesday many demonstrators expressed outrage at the lack of successful prosecution of such cases. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” said Ray, 29, a resident of Bronx, New York. “It’s amazing someone could kill one of us and still not be prosecuted,” he explained. Another demonstrator, a 59-year-old man from Brooklyn, said law-enforcement brutality continues because perpetrators “don’t get convicted, so they continue to behave in this way.”
Promoted through a viral social-media campaign, the “million hoodie march” aimed, at least in part, to collect signatures for a Change.org  petition started by Trayvon’s parents demanding that Zimmerman face charges.
Megan Lubin, Communications Manager at Change.org, confirmed that this is the fastest growing petition the site has ever encountered since it was started in 2007. “With up to 800 people signing per minute, and 350,000 petition signatures since Tuesday morning, the growth is unprecedented,” she said in an e-mail. “As the world’s largest platform for online campaigns, more than 15,000 campaigns are launched on Change.org every month, so to be in this category…is an incredibly rare feat.” The petition is poised to easily reach its goal of one million signatures, having accrued more than 967,000 by early Thursday.
At the rally Wednesday, New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams echoed the sentiments of many of the petitioners as he addressed the crowd: “Wherever you go in the US, the darker the color of your skin, the more you are a criminal,” he said. “We want justice when a black man falls.”
In New York for an appearance on NBC’s Today show, Trayvon Martin’s parents attended the event and even spoke briefly.
“My son did not deserve to die,” said the slain teen’s father, Tracy Martin, vowing not to give up until Zimmerman faces justice. Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, visibly emotional, told the crowd “our son is your son”—a message that resonated powerfully with a woman named Isis, a mother of three from New Rochelle who attended the protest with her grade school–aged daughter.
“I have a 14-year-old son that looks exactly like him, dresses exactly like him, wears Hollister shirts—happy-go-lucky, minds his own business—and could have easily been a Trayvon Martin,” she said.
Karla, another mom, brought her daughter, because, as she said, “I want her to know that when something like this happens you have to act…. You see this kind of thing happening over and over again and people walk free. That’s not okay.”
After hearing both of Martin’s parents and Councilman Williams speak, the crowd began to march west on 14th Street, eventually completing a small circuit. Scores of police officers formed a moving barrier between the marchers and traffic, as the procession took to the street for much of its route. As the crowd marched, it grew; at one point, the procession spanned ten city blocks, stopping traffic and drawing attention from curious onlookers. After returning to Union Square, some protesters decided to march to Times Square, while others remained.
By midnight, an atmosphere of tension descended on the park. The crowd’s chants shifted from calls of support for Trayvon to familiar Occupy Wall Street chants valorizing the 99 percent. Protesters had thinned out, but a core group remained, wary of a heavy police presence in the area. By some accounts, the police-to-protester ratio was approximately three to one, and police appeared poised to make mass arrests. In the end, NYPD made six arrests, citing disorderly conduct and obstruction of pedestrian traffic.
Other similar protests are planned around the country, including events in Chicago; Washington, DC; Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; Oakland; and Trayvon’s hometown of Sanford.