Amidst the noise of cars rushing down the Bruckner Expressway on the evening of July 15, a civil rights march was brewing. What started as a few stragglers gathered in the scorching sun soon grew into a march of hundreds calling for justice for Trayvon Martin.
As people streamed towards the intersection of Hunts Point Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, a collective formed. The group was mostly composed of black and brown faces. Among them were mothers pushing strollers, fathers carrying children on their shoulders, students, grandparents, brothers and sisters. Some shouted, some were more reserved. Some carried signs, others just held their fists in the air.
Many in America recoiled as news of the verdict for George Zimmerman — “not guilty” — spread across the nation after the late-night announcement on July 13. In a highly contested decision, a Florida jury decided that Zimmerman would be acquitted on two charges, second-degree murder and manslaughter. It was over a year ago that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin, a black teen, was unarmed and on his way home from a candy run when he was shot and killed. His death sent waves through communities of color and others in the United States.
For the group gathered in the South Bronx, situations like Martin’s are all too real. “That could’ve been me,” said Melissa Pena, “I’m not a black young man, but I am a Latina woman, and that could have been anyone. The laws in Florida need to change.”
The law she is referring to is Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground Law,” which justifies the use of force in self-defense without an obligation to retreat. Zimmerman has said that it was on this basis that he shot Martin, though whether or not Zimmerman was actually defending himself remains unclear.
“All the defensiveness, and the defense that Zimmerman brought to trial needs to change. Zimmerman went after this boy, and he killed him even though he wasn’t in danger. This is what needs to change,” said Pena.
The reality is also very real for mothers of color, who after seeing what happened to Martin, fear for the lives of their own children. “I’m here because it could’ve been my son. I’m a mother,” said Josephine Marrero.
The fear is very real. It was only a year ago that 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot by an NYPD officer in the Bronx. These incidents have ignited rage in communities all over the country and the Zimmerman verdict has brought them into the streets.
The march in Hunts Point came at the tail of a massive march from Union Square to Times Square and on to Harlem in New York City, as well as actions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, to name a few.
The group marched along Southern Boulevard shouting, “Off of the sidewalks, into the streets,” and “No justice, no peace. No racist police!” As they continued through the neighborhood, faces appeared in apartment windows, with some of the onlookers cheering and others shouting, “Fuck Zimmerman!”
The group started with approximately 50 people and grew to well over 100 as people ran off the sidewalk to join the march.
“I think it’s a sad day in America when an unarmed African American can just be shot down, and then the penalty for that is $250,000 in donations and a prime time Fox interview,” said Kimberly Ortiz. In the leadup to the trial, Zimmerman was interviewed by Fox’s Sean Hannity and managed to garner large amounts of money in public donations.
Maureen Ahmed, another activist attending the march, voiced her concerns about a racist criminal justice system. “It’s all a power dynamic,” she said. “ It’s an institution of 1 percent of the population who gets to dictate every portion of our society, including politics and the criminal justice system. It doesn’t seem to have any support for any of the people at the bottom.”
The issue hit home for Ahmed because she works for a non-profit where 80 percent of her clients are African-American. “For me this resonates because Trayvon’s face is in some of my youth’s faces,” she said.
The fear that these communities feel is coupled with a strong sense of disappointment in both Zimmerman’s verdict and a racist version of justice in the United States. “There really is no reason, no point, that someone should die and no justice should be served,” said Pena.
Ortiz echoed this disappointment as well. “I think right now that racism is running so rampant, and that’s what the justice system is perpetuating,” she said.
The Zimmerman verdict has pushed racial tension into the public sphere, and in many ways exposed the very different realities people of color face in this country. President Barack Obama, who initially said “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon,” now calls on the nation to come to terms with the verdict, adding that, “we are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken.” But if the laws of this nation perpetuate racism, how can we keep silent?