DETROIT – Amid loud chants of “No Justice, No Peace,” thousands of protesters gathered outside of Detroit’s federal building on Saturday to demand the U.S. Justice Department bring federal hate crime charges against George Zimmerman.
The rally, organized by the National Action Network and led by many of the city’s religious leaders, was one of 100 to take place across the country.
“This movement for Trayvon Martin – for justice for Trayvon – has brought in a lot of first-time activists,” said Rev. Charles Williams III, the head of the National Action Network’s Detroit chapter. Williams, who said during the rally that the state of Florida failed to get justice for Martin, said that the verdict was bigger than Trayvon Martin’s death.
“It’s also about voting rights and affirmative action and women’s rights and so many other things that has caused people to say that they’re ready to stand up and fight and be willing to speak up,” Williams added.
Like the rallies in other cities such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia, the rally attracted a racially and culturally diverse crowd. Martin, along with Marissa Alexander, was held up as an example of the Stand Your Ground laws being a mockery of justice.
Dawud Walid, the Executive Director for the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, compared Martin’s killing to the 1999 killing of Matthew Sheppard. Other speakers had more fiery messages for those who would dare to profile them.
“I am Trayvon Martin,” Rev. Tellis Chapman, the pastor at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, said to the crowd. “And if you’re going to run up on me, you better bring a bullet. Because I’ll whip your ass.”
Racial profiling in the Detroit area is more than just an issue that African-Americans – who make up nearly 90 percent of the city’s population – have to deal with. The Latino community on the city’s southwest side and the Arab-American and Muslim community in nearby Dearborn have also battled the problem for years.
Most people brought their children and many carried signs asking for justice for Martin who wasn’t far from their age. Many fathers were seen hoisting their sons on to their shoulders and talking about how they will explain this situation to them as apart of a grander narrative.
“I have a son that reminds me so much of Trayvon all the way down to how he looks,” Michael White of Pontiac, Mich. Said. He attended the rally with his 14-year-old daughter Mariah and said that he had already told his sons to be careful when out and about because it could happen anywhere.
“It’s changed the conversation [on profiling] because you can see it in the people who have come out today to speak out against hatred and bigotry. We dealt with in the days of Emmett Till and we’re still dealing with it now.”
White’s daughter, who is about to start the ninth grade in the fall, added: “[Martin’s death] was not fair. You can’t just look at somebody and assume that they’re suspicious. It was wrong to follow him. I don’t think it’s right.”
President Obama’s impromptu address on his experiences with racial profiling on Friday afternoon was also a hot topic in the crowd. It especially struck a chord with the young men in the crowd.
“It’s good to have a black man as the president of this country,” Rev. Steve Bland, the pastor at Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, said. “He stepped up to the plate yesterday. He spoke personally and passionately as a black man in America.
“It could’ve been any of us. This was not a case where [Martin] had drug paraphernalia on him or [was] n the wrong place at the wrong time. He was doing the right thing.”
In terms of the rally, Bland was happy to see the amount of energy in the protests across the country. He also feels that it’s finally brought the plight of black men, young and old, to light.
“It’s good to be able to unite across the country and city-to-city in solidarity to address a travesty that has happened to far too many black boys,” Bland said. “From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, we’ve seen the emasculation of black boys and it has never changed. The truth is that we had hidden behind the cloak of racism and thought it had gone away, but our laws just took it to a place where folks are forced to do certain things.”
“When they relaxed those laws you see what happens,” Bland added. “They stand behind ‘Stand Your Ground’ and they’ll stand behind other laws to continue to do what they wanted to do.”
The city’s youth, of all races, were also well-represented at the rally. It also struck a chord with many young women in the audience who see the “Stand Your Ground” laws – Michigan is one of 31 states to have some form of Stand Your Ground on the books – as an extension of the laws that infringe upon people’s basic human rights.
“The Trayvon issue was really important to me because of the aspect of racial politics,” Iyana Shelby, 19, of Detroit said. Shelby and her friend, Megdi Abebe, attended the rally as a showing of solidarity among the youth of the city.
“It’s also tackling the idea that we should be ‘colorblind’ and I think that it’s important that we finally say enough to that idea,” Abebe, a sophomore at Michigan State University, added. She feels that being colorblind on race does not end racism but erases identity.
Shelby also said that profiling is a big issue for black women, but in a different way. She feels that black women fall victim to their own set of preconceived notions that cloud people’s judgments of them.
“There has been plenty of profiling of black women in terms of thoughts that we were unclean and we weren’t right,” Shelby said. “It’s like we are tacky and not worthy of being treated equally.”
The prevailing theme is that the rallies cannot be the end of the anger but the beginning of a bigger movement. Williams insisted that the rallies this week have rekindled the fire and are the catalyst of a bigger movement.
“We feel good about this, that people from all backgrounds, faiths, and races, and religions are coming together,” Williams said, also mentioning that a much larger march is scheduled for Washington, D.C. on August 24. “We’re movement-building, not moment-building. This is not just a one-hit wonder.
“This movement that we’re building causes us to meet weekly. We meet every Saturday at 10 a.m. Just like Rev. Jackson in Chicago and Rev. Sharpton in New York. We’re building and training activists. This is growing and it’s a movement that grows to August 24 and beyond. We’re not trying to organize for moment to moment. We’re trying to change the culture of this country.”
Jay Scott Smith is a contributor to TheGrio. You can follow him on Twitter @JayScottSmith.