Looking for justice
Trayvon Martin supporters rally against “not guilty” verdict
Demonstrators took to the streets of Chico and Oroville last week, extending nationwide protests over the July 13 delivery of a not-guilty verdict in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin into the North State.
Two gatherings were held in Chico last Saturday (July 20)—a midday vigil at the corner of Third and Main streets and a “Justice for Trayvon Martin” rally and march held that evening at Chico City Plaza. On Tuesday morning (July 23), the Butte County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized a march to the steps of the Butte County Superior Courthouse in Oroville.
About 70 people attended the Saturday-evening event in Chico, with a similar number reported at the Oroville demonstration.
“When Trayvon was shot, it was like there was a death in the family,” said Vince Haynie, who co-organized the Saturday-evening event with the Chico Peace and Justice Center. “It was like another death in the family when that verdict came down.”
Haynie is a pastor at Rhema Word of Faith Empowerment Ministries church in Chapmantown, as well as founder of the Love Chapmantown Community Coalition. “This march for me represents healing,” he said, when asked what he hoped the event could accomplish. “It’s not about protesting people, it’s about protesting an unjust system. We love people and pray for both sides, for both families, but the system is broken.”
Haynie, like many others across the country, believes the Martin killing and subsequent acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman, needs to be a launching point for deeper dialogue regarding race relations, a conversation he said is sorely lacking.
“We know there is racism in this country; we try to sweep it under the rug and say there’s no race problem, especially since we have a black president, but yes, there is a problem,” Haynie said. “And no one wants to talk honestly about it.
“I’m a pastor, and I have white Christian friends and they don’t want to talk about it. A lot of people are sheltered from it and think it doesn’t exist, that everything is hunky-dory, but they need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
A quick perusal of social-media commentary in response to local protests lends credence to Haynie’s claim that dialogue is stifled. When Life in Chico, CA—a Facebook presence hosted by the Synthesis—asked if anyone planned to attend the Chico vigils, nearly a hundred mostly negative comments appeared within several hours.
Many commenters accused protesters of being lazy, unemployed rabble-rousers, and expressed their fear that the gatherings would lead to rioting. The sentiment, “Not guilty, get over it!” was echoed several times, and many defended the verdict or, even further, praised Zimmerman’s actions in shooting Martin, whom several contend was a drug-addled gang member, and the aggressor. Still more people blamed the media for aggravating the issue and criticized the playing of “the race card.” The initial post has since been removed.
Similar commentary appeared in response to Action News’ Internet coverage of the Tuesday morning Oroville event. “Maybe if they had jobs there would be no protest! I say give Zimmerman an award [as] community watch man of the year!” one Oroville man said.
Jack Lee, author of Post Scripts at the Chico Enterprise-Record-hosted NorCal Blogs, has been critical of Martin supporters since the shooting first made headlines in February 2012. On July 20, the same day as the Chico protests, he wrote a piece sarcastically titled “Cultural Awareness Follows Zimmerman Verdict,” focusing on acts of black-on-white violence that have allegedly occurred since the ruling. Below a picture of a number of African-Americans climbing on a moving vehicle, he added the caption “Numerous cultural activists attempt to open a dialogue with passing motorists in L.A.”
There was none of the violence suggested by Internet trolls at the Chico or Oroville events. Instead, at the City Plaza gathering, a racially mixed group met to commiserate over feelings that the ruling was unjust, symptomatic of a broken justice system and a society in which racism is still a factor. Local pastors, peaceniks, students and other community members delivered sometimes solemn, sometimes fiery speeches before huddling together to bow their heads and pray for justice. The crowd joined together in singing “We Shall Overcome” and headed east down Fourth Street to circle City Hall several times.
Among the speakers at the Chico evening event—and the primary organizer of the Oroville march—was Butte County NAACP President Irma Jordan. Jordan was present at the NAACP’s 104th annual National Convention in Orlando, Fla., when the Zimmerman verdict was handed down.
“It was awful,” she recalled. “We were mostly scattered in different meetings and workshops at the time, but wherever you were, you could feel it—this shared shock and disbelief. It was like someone had ripped everyone’s hearts out.”
Jordan said NAACP National President Benjamin Jealous called an emergency meeting of all members at the convention to immediately start gathering—in person and via the Internet—signatures for a petition calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute Zimmerman on civil-rights charges. The goal was to have a million signatures by the time U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrived to speak at the convention July 16, a goal the organization met. The Justice Department is weighing the case, and on Monday (July 22) collected all of the trial evidence from the state of Florida.
Jordan said NAACP chapter presidents were given orders on how to proceed upon returning to their own communities in response to the ruling. She explained that much of their focus is on changing existing “stand-your-ground” laws and racial-profiling tactics through legislation. She returned to Butte County July 18 and began organizing the Oroville march and future events.
“We want to let the community know we’ve got work to do and how we can do it, and start getting things accomplished,” Jordan said. “It has to be advocacy work that changes laws. It doesn’t do any good to take to the streets and burn stuff up, turn over police cars and break up people’s property.”
To this end, attendees at Tuesday’s march were given a “toolkit”—a packet full of information on whom to contact and how to advocate legislative change.
And though Jordan stresses the NAACP is all about nonviolence, community empowerment and a greater dialogue for all people, she also feels that people are entitled to a little righteous anger.
“People need to hear that this is wrong,” she said. “They can’t expect people to stay calm, calm, calm all the time when they’re being dogged out, when they’re not being treated like everybody else.”