Protesters angered over the death of teenager Trayvon Martin have taken to the streets in rallies in more than 100 US cities, strengthened by Barack Obama’s surprise decision to link the case to a legacy of racial discrimination.
Gathering outside federal court buildings and police headquarters on Saturday, civil rights campaigners called on prosecutors to bring hate crime charges against George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch captain who fatally shot the 17-year-old in Florida on his way home.
A jury acquitted Zimmerman a week ago, prompting an intense debate over race relations in America.
Civil rights veteran the Rev Al Sharpton told the New York rally: “Racial profiling is not as bad as segregation, but you don’t know the humiliation of being followed in a department store.”
“I’d never heard of Sanford,” he added, referring to the town where Martin, who was unarmed, was shot dead by Zimmerman after an altercation. “But I heard too many times of stories where people are killed and treated like they are worthless, and it was a sense of justice that we said that this man should not be let go.”
Sharpton was joined in New York by Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. Jay-Z and Beyoncé also made a brief appearance and joined in prayers at the rally in Manhattan, where there were shouts of “I am Trayvon Martin”. The chant was echoed at small gatherings in Boston, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The rallies were mostly small, good-natured gatherings, ranging from a few dozen to a couple of hundred people. They were organised by Sharpton’s National Action Network.
President Obama had addressed the issue on Friday relating to it on a personal level. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said. “And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened, I think it’s important to recognise that the African American community is looking at this through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Obama added: “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
The president’s remarks about the Martin case were reported to have surprised even White House staff, who had not expected him to talk so expansively – or in such personal terms – about the experience of being black in America.
Before Friday, Obama was coming under growing criticism for failing to address anger over the Martin case. “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off,” Obama told the White House press corps. “That happens often.”
At the Washington rally, Obama was lauded. “Yesterday, you saw an example of superlative leadership,” said Pastor Lennox Abrigo. “It is the first time we have heard in our country, from the leader of the free world, an entirely black perspective.”
Joe Madison, an American talkshow host, compared Martin’s death to racist murders from the civil rights era, and said the rallies should mark the start of a new movement. The numbers who attended suggest this will not happen.
“I’d hoped for a better turnout but you have to start somewhere,” said Brandi McCorry, 45, a civil servant at the protest in Los Angeles, where there were around 300 people.
In Miami, Martin’s father told supporters he would “fight for Trayvon until the day I die”. “This could be any one of our children,” he said. “Our mission now is to make sure that this doesn’t happen to your child.”
Ryan Milhomme, 24, from Miami’s Liberty City, was clutching a bag of Skittles and a can of soft drink, similar to those Martin was carrying on the night he was shot by Zimmerman.
“We’re sending a powerful message here and across the country, and we want that to be become even more powerful,” he said. “My president stands for justice, the Martin family stands for justice and today we are standing for justice.”
The Rev Jeffrey Johnson told about 200 attendees in Indianapolis that the nationwide protest was about making life safer for young black men whose lives are endangered by racial profiling.
He compared Zimmerman’s acquittal to that of four white officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992, a decision that triggered widespread rioting. “The verdict freed George Zimmerman, but it condemned America more,” Johnson said.
African American leaders believe that intense feelings over the Martin case and a recent decision by the US supreme court that effectively struck down a law protecting minority voter rights are breathing new life into black civil rights campaigns. That view has hardened after Obama’s intervention.
Next month, tens of thousands of black Americans are predicted to descend on the capital to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which culminated in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Organisers voiced hopes that they will be peaceful. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, there was no sign of the sporadic outbreaks of violence that occurred in LA and San Francisco earlier in the week.
Federal prosecutors have said they are pursuing an investigation into whether Zimmerman, 29, who is part-Hispanic, violated civil rights laws. However a number of experts have said the likelihood of a new prosecution is low.