Florida shooting hits home

Rally for slain teen held in Oroville

Community activists lead prayers for calm and call for justice at a rally in Oroville.

Community activists lead prayers for calm and call for justice at a rally in Oroville.

Photo By Ken Smith

The story of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen shot to death last month in a gated community, his gone beyond the viral social-media stage in the North State. About 70 people—many in hooded sweatshirts like the one Martin was wearing at the time of his death—gathered around a stage in Oroville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park Monday evening, March 26.

“This was a young man who looks like a lot of the young men that are out here today,” said Pastor David Jensen through a bullhorn, eliciting a chorus of affirmations from the crowd.

“We cannot let this type of injustice go on. … We have to stand up. … We have to encourage our people to stand up,” said Jensen, who ended his speech to cries of “hallelujah,” and passed the proverbial conch to a more soft-spoken minister who asked the assemblage to bow their heads in prayer.

The mood swung from stirring to solemn and back again at the gathering, a prayer vigil organized by the Butte County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP arranged similar gatherings in communities across the country in a case that has sparked nationwide furor and debate over issues of race and police misconduct. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who followed the unarmed teenager and ultimately shot and killed him, has claimed self-defense and remains uncharged.

More than a half-dozen churches from Oroville, Chico and Redding were represented at the vigil, and many of the speakers led prayers for peace, calm, unity and justice, with other prayers directed toward the Martin family, and even a few for Zimmerman. Prayers were mixed with calls to stand up against injustice and report incidents when people are treated unfairly.

Irma Jordan, president of Butte County’s NAACP chapter, offered the bullhorn to community members. A number of young people—many of whom said they identified with the victim—shared their feelings about the incident and its fallout.

Pastor Kevin Thompson of the Number One Church of God in Christ distributed donated hooded sweatshirts to attendees who didn’t have them. Zimmerman had cited Martin’s “hoodie” as a reason he became suspicious of the teen.

Martin was carrying a package of Skittles candy and a bottle of ice tea, which also have become symbolic in the case. Several signs read “Black Hoodie, Skittles, Tea … Am I Next?”

But not everyone is coming together in support of the Martin family. The conservative blogosphere has been especially critical of the slain teenager and the reactions of black leaders.

Locally, the blog “Post Scripts,” located at norcalblogs.com (a site hosted by the Chico Enterprise-Record and Oroville Mercury-Register), has logged several entries on the topic.

Jack Lee, who co-authors the blog with Tina Grazier, repeatedly contends he is waiting for all facts in the case to emerge. Meanwhile, he criticizes the media’s, as well as African Americans’ and President Obama’s, reaction to the shooting. He also defends Zimmerman’s conduct, peppers one entry with statistics on black-on-black crime, and most recently apologized for posting a link to a picture of a tough-looking youth wrongly identified as Martin.

“Let the rioting begin it’s now an official race issue because Al Sharpton is on the scene!” Lee began his first post on the Martin case March 23.

“The black community has found it’s [sic] rallying case and all hands are on deck,” wrote Grazier the next day. “They have a black man in the White House and a black man as AJ [attorney general, apparently]. There is an opportunity to do the right thing but there is also opportunity for grave injustice and the destruction of the America of our best hopes and expectations.”

A half-dozen shooting-related entries on Post Scripts have generated more than 100 comments from both sides.

After the Oroville rally, Jordan hugged friends, thanked speakers and took a moment to reflect on the evening and her organization’s future efforts regarding the incident.

“I feel exuberant,” she said. “It wasn’t a mass of people, but the people that were here were passionate enough about the situation to come out and dedicate prayer and words to it. It lets me know that, in the event that something were to happen in this area, that people would stand up and come together to try to see that justice is done. That is, if the law enforcement weren’t doing what they were supposed to. As long as it’s handled properly, no problem. But if not, it’s going to spark something.

“We’ll have to see where this is gonna go,” she continued. “If this doesn’t die down or come to some kind of resolution, we’ll have to do something soon to give people a chance to vent.”