Several thousand people descended on Sanford, Florida yesterday to attend the "Justice for Trayvon Martin" rally in Fort Mellon Park. Sanford, a small community about 25 minutes north of Orlando, was the site of the February 26 fatal shooting of the teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighorhood watch civillian, George Zimmerman.
While the events of the case continue to unfold, Sanford residents and supporters from around the region gathered to demonstrate their outrage over the handling of the incident by law enforcement, and to express their desire for justice.
Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and other national and community leaders spoke at a regularly scheduled city council meeting that had been moved into the Sanford Civic Center from City Hall to accommodate the large crowds expected at the rally. Martin's parents gave an emotional address to the meeting, sparking loud cheers from those in Fort Mellon Park watching the events on large screens.
Many expressed awareness that Sanford is now in the international spotlight due to the notoriety of the case and the issues it raises. But they had different reasons for showing up.
Reverend Dwayne Baron from Lake County, Florida said he was attending because "you never know when this could happen again." He said he wanted to reach out to lawmakers around the country, and that "we can't continue to just overlook things or sweep things under the rug, because we are in the public eye.
"We have to understand that there's a family involved and that people are still hurting," Baron said. "The lawmakers here in Sanford have to consider that, because those people still live here. That's something you can't overlook."
Ramone Rivers attended in order "to be a representative of calmer heads. People are trying to put a racial spin on the situation and I think it's more about justice and institutional oppression. Being here is more to start a dialogue."
For Rivers, Trayvon's story calls attention to a much larger problem within American society. Speaking about Geraldo Rivera's ill-chosen comments about Trayvon's 'hoodie' that have dominated the media in the last week, Rivers said that "the focus is so wrong. It should be about Trayvon.
"He was stereotyped and then he was tracked down and it started a conflict. The spark was that stereotype that Zimmerman had in his mind. Maybe Zimmerman was sincerely scared, but it was all started by a perception about how [Trayvon] looked."
Frank Webb, a grandfather originally from Washington D.C. who has lived in Orlando for 15 years, agreed with Rivers. He was there "to support justice. Not a black-white thing but to support justice."
Webb, perhaps like others who were not from Sanford, thought "the reason we are all here other than Trayvon's death is that the Sanford police department dropped the ball - Chief Lee dropped the ball."
One major theme repeated by speakers and supporters throughout the day were the 911 tapes that were not released until well after Trayvon Martin's death.
Alluding to other shooting incidents that have taken place in Orlando that were also 'Stand Your Ground' cases, "The 911 tapes were either played that night or the next day," Webb said. "It took so long for the [Martin)]tapes to be released and that tells me that someone is trying to correct some wrongs.
"Trayvon could've been one of my grandkids. It hits home."
Michelle Lee, from Virginia, said she was attending the rally because "I have brothers, I have nephews, and I have a son. And whether it be black, white, Hispanic, or what have you, this [incident] can happen to anyone. And for someone to be walking around free and not to answer for it -- that's wrong."
Like most others, Lee was hoping for Zimmerman's arrest.
"If he's not arrested than there really is no justice or peace for his family, and you have some people who might take it in a totally different direction. That's not something I want to see happen but people get tired, people get frustrated when they see nothing get resolved."
Some in attendance at the rally were there to take aim at the controversial law that allowed Zimmerman to avoid arrest following the shooting.
John Peterson Janvier, a civil rights activist, attended the rally to pass out petitions. His flyer , he said, "talks about the Florida 'Stand your Ground' laws and other laws in Florida that don't make any sense."
Like so many others at the rally, he said that "the world is watching what happens [here] right now," and that "this ['Stand Your Ground' case] will be law for other cases, so hopefully we can learn from it." He was confident that the law would get changed "eventually," though he was uncertain "which department or which part of the government is going to do it."
The rally also attracted some more radical groups.
Minister Mikhail is the leader of the New Black Panther party based out of Jacksonville, Florida. He, like others, said that his group came "because we want justice for Trayvon Martin."
"We came to demand justice, we came to demand an arrest. But after the stall tactics and the delays and the deceit by our government and our police department, we decided to sit down with other leaders in other groups to come up with a reward to arrest one George Zimmerman, who is a brutal beast... who violated human life."
Asked how his group would react if Mr. Zimmerman was not arrested, Mikhail said, "There's a lot of pain in the hearts of black people. How can there be peace when there is injustice day in and day out all over America and all over the world against black people?"
"The New Black Panther party got involved to put pressure on authorities to bring this man to arrest. If we want peace, there has to be justice," Mikhail said.
Nearly two million people have signed the online petition at change.org which seeks the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman; Al Sharpton reminded the city council of this during his five-minute speech.
Police presence was notable in the city, especially around the civic center where the city council meeting took place. Some streets were cordoned off, and multiple police helicopters kept a close watch on the events. The march through the streets prior to the meeting attracted 5,000 or more supporters, and proceeded in an orderly - and highly vocal - fashion.
But acts of violence were very far from most people's minds. Greg Murphy, a Sanford resident for 30 years, said he knew it would be a peaceful protest.
"The majority of the people here all want the same thing: justice for Trayvon," Murphy said.
What became most clear yesterday was that, in the eyes of Sanford's residents and those who travelled to the city from around Florida and surrounding states, "justice for Trayvon Martin" has now become synonymous with justice in America. Aware of Sanford's unwitting place in 21st century American history, members of the community are doing everything they can to take a stand.