Bringing the battle to Sanford

April 2, 2012

Sherry Wolf reports from Sanford, Fla., on a rally demanding justice for Trayvon.

AS MANY as 3,000 people joined the NAACP and the 1199SEIU health care workers union on March 31 for a protest through the central Florida town of Sanford where Trayvon Martin was killed in late February.

The nearly all-Black crowd marched past boarded-up pawn shops and crumbling shacks where the town's poorest African Americans reside. The police headquarters--the only modern, state-of-the-art structure in sight--was the rallying point for the angry protest.

Calls to 911 and the accounts of witnesses corroborate the basic facts: Trayvon was walking through a gated community wearing a hoodie when he was spotted by self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who decided he was "suspicious." Zimmerman followed Trayvon in defiance of instructions from the police dispatcher and, after a later confrontation, shot and killed him.

But Zimmerman has still not been arrested--because police and prosecutors say they can't challenge his claim that he acted in self-defense.

After days of enduring the media's unrelenting character assassination of Trayvon and its defense of his killer, the crowd was defiant. Many carried placards with the pictures and names of other young Black men from Sanford who have been killed without any justice in their cases.

Thousands came to Sanford for a demonstration to demand justice for Trayvon Martin
Thousands came to Sanford for a demonstration to demand justice for Trayvon Martin (Gary W. Green | MCT/Newscom)

This record feeds local skepticism about whether Trayvon's death, too, will be brushed aside, despite international attention and outrage. "It's taking too long," said Gwendolyn, a 69-year-old veteran of civil rights struggles who too wary to give her last name. "They're waiting it out. That's justice in Florida."

Janice Mortimer, a member of the NAACP in Bradford County in the northern part of the state, said, "If Trayvon's family got the attention they deserved, it wouldn't go this far." Cynthia Berry, who traveled for three hours from her home in Starke, Fla., to get to Sanford, said: "It's just sad that in 2012 we still have to fight this fight."

Phyllis Young came from Jacksonville with her sons to march in Sanford. "I do have three sons, and that very well could be any of my boys any day, any moment," Young told the Florida Times-Union. "I don't see it as just a fight for Trayvon, but a fight for all young men."

The speakers at the rally and the crowd agreed that protests are crucial if the Martin family is to receive any kind of justice for the murder of Trayvon.

On the speakers' platform, NAACP President Ben Jealous introduced Brenden Mitchell, a NAACP youth leader. "I am 17 years old," Mitchell said in a fiery speech that was enthusiastically received. "I'm a high school student. I'm a young Black man. I could be the next Trayvon Martin."

Many people at the demonstration were marching for the first time. Buses came from across the state to bring veteran activists and young people alike. A group of white college students drove in from Gainesville, Melbourne and Tampa, and were met with appreciation for stepping over this state's heavily drawn color line to express solidarity.

Ben Jealous drew attention to the turnout both from out of town and in Sanford itself--"people from throughout this community," he said, "students, parents, teachers. We're tired of racial profiling. We're tired of the lives of young Black men not being treated with the same level of importance when they're killed."

THIS WAS the third major demonstration in Sanford in the weeks since Trayvon's murder came to national and international attention, and there have been many more protests and actions around Florida. In Miami, where Trayvon went to high school, there were walkouts and student marches in mid-March.

On March 26, at the University of Florida's flagship campus in Gainesville, more than 250 Black and white students marched together to the FBI building to demand that the Feds take action to arrest George Zimmerman. That may not seem like a lot compared to some of the bigger demonstrations in other cities, but in a deeply segregated town where Blacks literally live on the other side of the tracks, and where activists passed a Klan rally of dozens along the road home recently, a multiracial march of this size is a triumph.

There are Floridians who say they're forever changed by this case, and some of them--to the horror of bigots--will cite this as their entry into a life of organized left-wing politics. That the students in Gainesville hoped their protest would be part of a new civil rights movement is a heartening sign. Seasoned activists insist this hasn't happened in the past, despite an endless stream of outrages over the years.

The spreading radicalization was clear at the Sanford march as well. A literature table set up by the International Socialist Organization was swamped by well-wishers who were thrilled to see antiracist books and the banner calling for an "end to the new Jim Crow." The paper edition of Socialist Worker sold fast, often followed by spirited discussions about Trayvon and the roots of racism in America.

From the podium, the largest cheers went up when Rev. Al Sharpton echoed the sentiment that surrounds this case. "We live in the middle of an American paradox," he told the crowd. "We can put a Black man in the White House, but we can't walk a Black child through a gated neighborhood. We are not selling out, bowing out or backing down until there is justice for Trayvon."

Sharpton, along with many of the speakers from the NAACP and Rev. Jesse Jackson from Rainbow PUSH in Chicago, pressed for activists to register and vote as the way to "unlock justice in the community." Though appeals to reelect Barack Obama and local Democratic officials were met with applause, few in the crowd expressed hope that voting was the most important way to fight the racist injustice system.

"It's up to the masses to change things," insisted Ayanna Miller of Fort Lauderdale. "We have the power. We have to stop being afraid."

Joe Richard contributed to this article.

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