Armed with hoodies, signs and Skittles, protesters flocked to the Morristown Green on Tuesday to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was fatally shot last month by a neighborhood watch captain.
“We know exactly what this is,” Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty told the crowd. “It’s a murder.”
He joined other speakers in denouncing Florida’s self-defense law and calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who told police he shot the 17-year-old during a scuffle, according to press accounts.
Morristown Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid, whose son attends college in Florida, urged a boycott of oranges from the Sunshine State along with a tourism boycott. Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris exhorted young people to change onerous laws by participating in government.
Another speaker, Quincy Pharr, downplayed reports that Trayvon Martin was suspended from school for bringing marijuana, among other incidents.
“What does that have to do with anything?” he said. “Did Trayvon Martin have a gun? Did Trayvon Martin follow anybody? Did George Zimmerman follow Trayvon Martin? Should George Zimmerman be prosecuted?”
Yes! responded audience members. Many wore hoodies and waved signs proclaiming, “We Are Trayvon Martin.”
The black teenager was returning on foot from a convenience store with Skittles candy and an iced tea when the altercation occurred. He wore a hoodie in the rain; protesters around the country have suggested that George Zimmerman wrongly associated the clothing with criminal behavior.
Shanae Blanchard, co-organizer of the Morristown protest, said her 8-year-old son now is scared to go outside wearing a hoodie.
“I don’t ever want him to feel uncomfortable about going outside to play in a hoodie. I don’t ever want him to feel like he can’t grow up to be whatever he wants to be,” said Shanae, who works in Mayor Dougherty’s office.
“I don’t ever want my son to go through what Trayvon Martin has gone through, and what his family has gone through.”
Steve Neblett of the Neighborhood House and Frelinghuysen Middle School guidance counselor Vincent Phinn, who are African Americans, advised the youths to remain alert in unfamiliar settings and to keep calm during encounters with police.
“Even though you are not a criminal, some people may think that you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes,” Steve cautioned.
“Being a person of color in America, you’re behind the eight ball a little bit. It’s not fair, but life is not fair,” Vincent added. He stressed the importance of education and making smart choices– like avoiding confrontations with law enforcement, and being good fathers when they grow up. Most of the boys in the classroom do not have dads at home.
One who does, 11-year-old Michael Bennett, has talked about the Trayvon Martin case with his father.
“I think it’s really sad. This guy got shot because he had Skittles, because he had his hoodie on…The way you dress (shouldn’t) matter.”
Some speakers at Tuesday’s protest were heartened by the crowd’s diversity, and searched for lessons in the tragedy. Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi told young people not to lose faith; they must become part of the solution.
Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of the Bethel A.M.E. Church stressed our commonalities.
“We all live behind masks, masks that we didn’t create, masks that we didn’t choose to put on. But at the end of the day, we’re all human,” the minister said. “We all hurt. We all love. We all have joys. And our challenge is to try to find what makes us one family, one community, one God, one nation.”
Tennille Williams, a Morristown mom who created the event, said the message for her children was clear:
“You have a voice. You should use it. If you feel something is unjust, if you feel something is outrageous or egregious, it is your American right to stand up and fight. Peacefully.”