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Zimmerman verdict prompts rally against violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 20, 2013: Protesters returned Saturday to protest George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin – and to call for a curtailment of violence throughout the region.

The rally – staged in front of the Eagleton Federal Courthouse in downtown St. Louis – corresponded with similar events in roughly 100 cities protesting last week’s verdict. A six-woman jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2012 shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin.

The Zimmerman case was the subject of intense national focus over the past 16 months, putting a spotlight on the issues of neighborhood watch groups, the use of firearms in self-defense and racial profiling. Zimmerman and his attorneys contended he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin last year during an altercation in Sanford, Fla. 

But the not guilty verdict has sparked protests throughout the country, including several in St. Louis. Earlier this week, scores of people rallied in front of the St. Louis Justice Center and the Old Courthouse. 

For James Coleman, the rallies showcase that “we believe that prayer changes things, protest changes things and voting changes things.”

“Today, we want to indicate to you that Trayvon Martin did nothing wrong,” Coleman said. “He was simply going home to bring his brother some candy and iced tea. Going home was Trayvon’s civil right. Being alive today was his human right.”

Coleman and other speakers called for the Justice Department to intervene in the situation. Tremaine Combs, a pastor at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of St. Charles, said he was "not pleading for justice from the judicial system, but demanding justice as an American citizen."

“I’m reminded of what Dr. King said that the arc of the universe bends toward justice,” said Combs, referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quotation.“So I’m not pleading, I’m demanding that the federal government follow the arc of the universe. Because justice is going to come whether they do it or not.”

State Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said the Martin case should be a wake up call for African-Americans to vote in local elections.

That type of action, he said, would provide a better chance to change state statutes, such as so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws.

“We need to learn to vote in local elections,” said Pierson, who is also a reverend. “There is no reason we can be the majority in St. Louis and can’t win an election. There’s no reason for that. It’s because we’re staying home. If the people standing here right now would register and vote next year, you could change the events that happen in our lives.

“I’m getting old. I’m doggone tired to be marching. It’s too hot – my feet can't take it no more,” he added, making a reference to the stifling heat. “We earned the right to vote – now vote!”

'The violence has got to stop'

The rally also featured speakers calling for a halt to violence within their communities. Several violent incidents have happened around the area recently, including a shooting that killed a 9-year-old boy and a hit-and-run that killed a child in the Metro East.

Leslie Broadnax – an attorney from Bellefontaine Neighbors – said that “the violence has got to stop.”

“Whether it’s black-on-black crime or senseless violence like the Zimmerman matter, it has got to end,” Broadnax said. “And we’re hoping today we’re going to uplift, inspire and continue to work in our community for our men and women.”

Tony Scott – a local radio host – told the crowd “I know other cities have a problem, but this is ours."

“We have lost far too many of our young people for no reason at all,” Scott said. “People getting shot for sitting on the stoop of their house. Kids getting shot for riding in cars, minding their own business. Going to camp this summer and getting shot in the head. No reason. Why? What’s the reason? Why are people mowing people down senselessly in our city?”

Scott went onto say that he’s “tired of coming out to rallies like this so we can remember people that we lost for no reason.”

“I enjoy being here with you and I enjoy seeing you, but not for this reason,” Scott said. “I want to see you because it’s your birthday. It’s your child’s birthday. Your child’s getting married. Your child’s having a baby – you’re being a grandparent. That’s why I want to see you. That’s why I want to hear from you. I don’t want to hear from you because something sad happened in your life.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.