In the wake of what many believe was an unjust verdict, protests have been taking place all across the country and here in Houston, Texas, ever since the jury delivered a stunning ‘not guilty’ verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
This past weekend, organizers from across the country held rallies, vigils, marches and protests with the hopes of putting pressure on states to make changes to their “stand your ground” self-defense laws in the wake of 17-year-old African American teenager Trayvon Martin’s murder and demanding the U.S. Justice Department bring Civil Rights charges against Zimmerman.
RACIAL TENSION HIGH
Racial tension has been at an all-time high as a result of the Zimmerman verdict, with many people resorting to social activism as a means of expressing their disappointments, demanding accountability and bringing about change.
As a result of that tension, President Obama surprised everyone by delivering an impromptu, personal perspective of the murder of Martin and the subsequent trial of Zimmerman to reporters and to the nation.
Without the use of a teleprompter, President Obama delivered some of his most detailed and heartfelt comments on race relations in the United States since he became the first African American president. He offered everyone an explanation for why this case has created so much distress within the African American community.
"I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” said President Obama. “It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."
President Obama sought to ease racial tensions and took the opportunity to speak to the challenges that young African American men experience in this country, challenges that he expressed that he, himself, experienced and believes prompted the protests and emotional responses to the Zimmerman verdict.
"When you think about why in the African American community, at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, it's important to recognize the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn't go away,” said President Obama. "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could've been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
The president challenged state governments to work towards providing a better environment for African American boys growing up in this country.
Responses to the verdict in Houston varied tremendously. Several ministers chose to address the issue before their congregations on the Sunday after the verdict and many had somber vigils and moments of silence.
Hundreds gathered at City Hall on Saturday as part of a national protest in support of Trayvon Martin. Houston was one of about 100 cities across the country marching in protest of the George Zimmerman verdict at the same time.
Several other groups chose not to be as silent and sought to bring more attention to what they believe is a larger epidemic that goes far beyond Trayvon Martin. One group also went to City Hall, but their presence came with more fanfare.
Several dozen protesters showed up downtown at Houston City Hall last Tuesday, causing City Council to take a recess after they showed up in City Council chambers shouting, “No justice - No peace!” and “Trayvon Martin.” Two people were arrested on site but have since been released, according to HPD, and the district attorney does not plan to file charges against them.
While that incident was happening, another protest was taking place at the courthouse downtown. No one was arrested at that site either.
“Our elected representatives have not made a statement about this national travesty and they should have spoken before today,” said National Black United Front National Chairman Kofi Taharka. “If we can’t get no justice, we can’t have business as usual.”
“HIGHWAY 288” SHUTDOWN
One of the most talked about protests came on last Monday, when hundreds of people marched through Third Ward in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. The march, organized by Houston activist Quanell X, began in Third Ward at the Rodney F. Byrd Funeral Home.
"Many called and asked why you would hold a rally at a funeral home," said Quanell X to the crowd of protestors. "People like George Zimmerman and the racist jury that set him free wish to see Black young men at the funeral home. Now let's march brothers and sisters. Let's march to the freeway."
Seeming like pallbearers at a funeral, Quanell X and other men carried a coffin down Southmore Blvd. and continued their march until they approached Highway 288. Carrying the coffin, Quanell and hundreds of protesters walked onto the highway and for more than 20 minutes, blocked the southbound lanes of Highway 288 and stopped traffic for miles, with the exception of an ambulance.
As rain clouds began to cover the sky, protestors continued to wave signs and chant "No Justice, No peace" and “Trayvon Martin,” until Quanell X climbed on top of the coffin and officially called off the march for that day. He announced that he would be having another march in River Oaks on Sunday.
RIVER OAKS PROTEST
Quanell X organized another rally at Wiley Park in Fourth Ward on Sunday, as another Trayvon Martin tribute.
As in previous events, protestors held signs up and wore T-shirts that read, "KNOW JUSTICE. KNOW PEACE," with the letters "NO" printed in a different color.
Quanell X spoke to the crowd, prayed and led the protestors down West Gray into River Oaks, one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, where real estate values in the community range from $1 to over $20 million.
As the protestors marched through River Oaks, another group of protestors gathered at the corner of Shepherd of West Gray for a counter protest in support of the Zimmerman verdict.
Mounted HPD officers followed the march along West Gray, instructing protesters to stay on the sidewalk. In spite of the intimidating police presence, protestors continued to walk and chant, "No justice, No peace!"
ARE PROTESTS EFFECTIVE?
There are many people who would ask the question, “Are protests really effective?”
First off, having an executable strategy for anything is important, but as history shows us, the purpose of any meaningful protest is to raise awareness of an issue and disrupt business as usual.
Secondly, if it wasn’t for protests, public pressure, activism and the engagement of the Black media, Zimmerman would never have been charged and arrested to face a trial in the first place. It took people who did not take a safe or neutral position that made it happen and caused the arrest and subsequent trial.
It is probably a good idea to understand the history of protests in this country and how they have brought forth change before making a judgment on its effectiveness or lack thereof.
Many people are more familiar with the modern day “Tea Party” movement than they are with the historic Boston Tea Party, where over the course of three hours on December 16, 1773, more than 100 colonists secretly boarded three British ships arriving in harbor and dumped 45 tons of tea into the water. Their unique protest, because of the harsh new British taxation acts that were implemented and their dissatisfaction with their lack of representation in the British Parliament, was a key precursor to the American Revolution and helped spark a movement that would see the states gain their independence from England shortly thereafter.
Of course we can’t forget the August 1963 March on Washington, where more than 200,000 protestors held a peaceful gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, in order to demand racial and economic equality in the United States. The March on Washington is credited with putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy and members of Congress to meet with them and draw up a firm civil rights legislation. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders led a march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and as a result of their peaceful protest and march, this event led to the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Then there were the roughly 1 million Chinese students and citizens, who in an attempt to seek democratic reform, peacefully occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square for seven weeks only to have the Chinese military roll up on them in tanks to clear them out and attack them, killing at least several hundred protesters.
There are so many other memorable protests that have brought forth change, such as the women's-suffrage movement, where key female leaders of the movement spearheaded a strong push for equal voting rights in the mid-19th century and helped usher in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which formally granted women the right to vote.
Two months after public protests occurred throughout Germany, the concrete wall that separated East and West Berlin for 28 years came down as a result of the pressure placed on the government to take down the wall for years.
In 1969, more than 500,000 people marched on Washington to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which is still the largest political rally in the nation's history.
Lastly, who could forget Nelson Mandela who helped lead and organize an anti-apartheid work stoppage, in retaliation for a new bill effectively allowing the government to investigate any political party or organization? On June 26, 1950, hundreds of thousands of South Africans participated in the "Stay at Home" protest, which they used several times for over a decade until apartheid was ended.
DEALING WITH “STAND YOUR GROUND”
President Obama has called for changes in the various "stand your ground" self-defense laws and has since been supported by his former G.O.P. presidential opponent John McCain in calling for those changes.
Nevertheless, in spite of President Obama or McCain’s beliefs and positions on the “stand your ground” laws, neither of them have a say in the matter because these laws can only be changed or eliminated at the state level and through state legislatures.
The state of Florida, where Zimmerman shot Martin to death and used a “stand your ground” self-defense claim, became the first state to enact a “stand your ground” law in October 2005. Under the leadership of a Republican state legislature and then-Governor Jeb Bush, along with major support from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the very first “stand your ground” law was signed into law by Bush and has since been enacted in more than 21 other states. Texas has a self-defense law based on the “castle doctrine.”
On March 27, 2007, Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 378 into law, making Texas a "castle doctrine" state which came into effect September 1, 2007. Senate Bill 378 also contains a "stand your ground" clause, meaning the person using physical or deadly force against an attacker does not have a duty to retreat. Deadly force is reasonable under “stand your ground” laws in certain circumstances, such as when a person is attempting to defend himself from deadly force of an attacker in his home, vehicle or place of employment, or against attackers who are committing crimes of kidnapping, murder, sexual assault or robbery. The law provides civil immunity to persons who use authorized deadly force against attackers.
A study done by two Texas A&M economics professors found that the adoption of "stand-your-ground" laws caused a statistically significant increase in the raw homicide rate, and had only a very small positive effect on deterrence of crime.
It is imperative for all citizens to understand the “stand your ground” laws in their respective states, while elected officials, activists and advocacy groups seek to bring more awareness and changes to these laws.