26 Mar 2012

Mass protests in solidarity with Trayvon Martin

On the streets, and online: thousands of people across America are demanding justice for the black teenager shot dead in Florida, while the hoodie has become an unlikely symbol of protest.

Rally in support of Trayvon Martin (Getty)

“We are all Trayvon Martin”: thousands of people have turned out in cities across America throughout the weekend, calling on Florida police to arrest the neighbourhood watch volunteer who killed the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

The Orlando Sentinel has now published what it says is George Zimmerman’s account to the police of what happened, on that night a month ago, as he patrolled his gated suburban community. His version of events claims that after he’d called the emergency services to report a suspicious person, he started following the 17 year old, when the 911 dispatcher told him he didn’t need to.

Zimmerman turned back towards his SUV, and, the Sentinel writes: “The two exchanged words, then Trayvon punched him in the nose, sending him to the ground, and began beating him….Zimmerman began yelling for help. Several witnesses heard those cries, and there’s been a dispute about from whom they came: Zimmerman, or Trayvon.”

Trayvon’s supporters say he was unarmed, and had committed no crime, who was gunned down as he carried a box of Skittles and a can of iced tea. They’ve dubbed their protests the ‘Million Hoodies March’, after the sweatshirt the 17 year old was wearing when he was shot.

The case has sparked a wave of anger and outrage on issues from racial profiling to gun laws – and the hoodie has been turned into a symbol of the call for justice, after the transcript of Zimmerman’s original 911 call was published.

Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.”
Unidentified man: “Did you see what he was wearing?”
Zimmerman: “Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie.”

The issue was amplified by Fox television host Geraldo Riviera, who claimed that Trayvon’s death could be partly blamed on the fact that he was wearing the hooded top.

By all of us wearing the hoodie… we’re all a part of the same family. Daniel Maree, organiser, Million Hoodies March

Despite the immediate outrage over his remarks, Riviera returned to the theme days later: “Who else wears hoodies? Everybody that ever stuck up a convenience store; the guy that hijacked a plane; Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber…” Incensed, thousands of people took to social media sites like Twitter in a spontaneous show of support, posting photographs of themselves wearing hoodies, from grandmothers to law students.

On Friday, the Miami Heat basketball team posted a photograph of themselves wearing hoodies, along with the hashtag #WeWantJustice. The former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wore one too. Preachers and their congregations sported hoodies at services on Sunday morning. One Church minister told worshippers to post pictures of themselves holding signs, saying: “I am not dangerous. Racism is.” As Daniel Maree, who helped to organise the New York march last week put it: “By all of us wearing the hoodie, we’re all suspicious, and so we’re all a part of the same family.”

Emergency calls

George Zimmerman, who claims he shot Martin in self-defence, is in hiding after a number of death threats: a separatist group called the New Black Panthers has also offered a $10,000 reward for his capture, declaring: “If the government won’t do the job, we’ll do it.”

Logs of other 911 calls made by Zimmerman have emerged, dating back before this month’s shooting, where he reports other black males in the development who he believed were suspicious. One of the reports referred to a boy aged between seven and nine. Now Florida’s governor Rick Scott has promised to provide protection, if Zimmerman asks for it: “If he feels unsafe, we’ll make sure nothing happens to him”, he said.

I don’t like a move towards vigilantism. Senator Chuck Schumer

But public anger isn’t just focused on race. Scott is also under pressure to look again at Florida’s “Stand your ground” laws which allows people to “meet force with force… including deadly force”, if there is a reasonable belief that it is neccessary to “prevent death or great bodily harm.”

Since Florida’s law came into effect, the number of justifiable homicides by private citizens has risen threefold. 23 other states have similar provisions on their statute books. New York Senator Chuck Schumer has called for the Justice Department to investigate whether these measures actually increase violence. “I don’t like a move towards vigilantism,” he said.

In the meantime the conscience of America is on show: a nation recognising the depth of race-related prejudice and fear that lurks barely beneath the surface. In the world of hashtag activism.

It is not just the streets, but social media which is now providing a voice for those who feel ignored. In the fervent search for answers, one thing is for certain: a teenage boy has become the symbol for a generation. As his father Tracy Martin told CBS last night: “The world knows Trayvon now.”

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News