OAKLAND, Calif. - Communities in Oakland held vigils July 20 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The vigils were part of the National Action Network's countrywide event - the "Justice For Trayvon" National Day of Action. A crowd of about 200 assembled to hear speakers at the foot of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building here in parallel with other activities held in over 100 cities.
A number of Oakland youth took leadership of the event, spotlighting the effects of the shooting and verdict on their fellow young people, who took turns before the crowd to speak movingly of their reactions to hearing of the death of Martin. Ranging in age from 11 to 19, African American youth joined with other speakers to give voice to their feelings about Trayvon Martin and their feeling they could easily be the next Black youth to be killed by a stranger who might view them with suspicion.
Speakers from local activist organizations discussed the need to change the "stand your ground" laws that created legal loopholes for racist vigilantes to claim self-defense when killing Black people. Family and friends of victims of police violence also drew parallels between this vigilantism and the lack of value placed on the deaths of people of color when gunned down by law enforcement personnel, often with excessive force.
Oakland District Three Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney also addressed the vigil, lending her support to the peaceful crowd. Gibson spoke of the need to build a movement against racist violence that should be "about loving ourselves more than other people hate us."
Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland also took to the stage, intending to speak on her thoughts about the verdict, but was heckled by disruptors in the back of the crowd who were then, in turn, hushed by the rest of the crowd, who wished to keep the event focused on Trayvon Martin.
The Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr., also known as "President of the Hip-Hop Caucus," followed up Quan, speaking from beside the mayor as he related his experience meeting Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin. "She gave me strength," Yearwood said. He said Fulton told him, "Whatever you do, tell people to keep fighting."
"Stand your ground" laws have received heightened scrutiny and criticism since Trayvon Martin's death last year in Sanford, Fla., at the hands of George Zimmerman. Although this law was not directly invoked by the defense in Zimmerman's trial, these laws have such influence that the law's content was embedded into the instructions to the jury, as PRWatch reports. The jury was told:
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Zimmerman initiated contact with Martin when he pursued him on foot against the advice of the emergency dispatchers. But the "stand your ground" law was in his favor if he, a civilian on his own, deemed the contact required deadly force because he feared for his safety in the situation.
This year the U.S Commission on Civil Rights will investigate if "stand your ground" laws contain racial bias. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times studied nearly 200 Florida "stand your ground" cases. The study found that "Defendants claiming 'stand your ground; are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white."
The U.S. Department of Justice has had an open case on the shooting of Trayvon Martin since it happened last year. Public support for an investigation of the killing of Martin as a hate crime soared immediately in the wake of the not-guilty verdict for Zimmerman A petition on the NAACP's website urging the DOJ to launch a civil rights investigation was so overwhelmed with responses in the first 24 hours that the website crashed. Within three days the petition garnered 1.5 million signatures.
Photo: Justice For Trayvon rally in Oakland, Calif., July 20. Marilyn Bechtel/PW