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Trayvon Martin verdict brings wide outcry, US review

Accusations of racism follow acquittal; Justice Dept. will examine case

Tyson Cooper, 10, was among the demonstrators at a rally in Atlanta  to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Tyson Cooper, 10, was among the demonstrators at a rally in Atlanta to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

NEW YORK — The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin reverberated across the country on Sunday from church pulpits to street protests, setting off a conversation about race, crime, and how the justice system handled a polarizing killing of the black teenager in Florida.

Lawmakers, members of the clergy, and demonstrators who assembled in parks and squares described the decision of the six-person jury not to convict Zimmerman on any counts in the death of Martin as evidence of endemic racism.

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The Department of Justice said Sunday it will look into the case, which could lead to criminal civil rights charges; Zimmerman may also face civil lawsuits from Martin’s family.

In a statement Sunday, the Justice Department said the criminal section of its civil rights division, the FBI, and the US attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida are evaluating evidence.

President Obama called the death of Martin a tragedy for the country and urged calm reflection, a message shared by religious and civil rights leaders hoping to ensure peaceful demonstrations and put the focus on ways to prevent a recurrence.

Protests were held Saturday and Sunday in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Washington, and four California cities, the Associated Press reported.

In Oakland, Calif., dozens of protesters filled the streets to denounce the verdict shortly after it was announced Saturday. Some of the protesters set fire to trash cans, broke the windows of local businesses, and damaged police patrol cars, but no arrests or injuries were reported.

Demonstrators who gathered in Washington chanted, ‘‘No justice, no peace.’’ One protester carried a sign that read, ‘‘Stop criminalizing black men.’’ In Florida, about 200 demonstrators marched through downtown Tallahassee carrying signs that said ‘‘Racism is Not Dead’’ and ‘‘Who’s Next?’’

“Trayvon Benjamin Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are not seen as a person, but a problem,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told his congregation Sunday morning.

In an interview afterward, Warnock put the killing in the context of a month in which the Supreme Court voted, 5 to 4, to in effect gut the Voting Rights Act.

“The last few weeks have been pivotal to the consciousness of black America,” he said. “Black men have been stigmatized. We’ve become a stigmatized mascot for social misery and the canvas on which America projects all of its problems.”

In Sanford, the modest Central Florida city where Martin was killed, the Rev. Valarie J. Houston drew shouts of support and outrage as decried “the racism and the injustice that pollute the air in America.”

“Lord, I thank you for sending Trayvon to reveal the injustices, God, that live in Sanford,” she said.

Tyson Cooper,10, attended a rally in Atlanta.

ERIK S. LESSER/EPA

Tyson Cooper,10, attended a rally in Atlanta.

Zimmerman and his supporters dismissed race as a factor in the events that led to the death of Martin, as did his lawyers in court. The defense team argued that Zimmerman had not chased down Martin and had acted in self-defense as the 17-year-old slammed Zimmerman’s head on a sidewalk. And Florida law explicitly gives civilians the power to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel that their lives are in danger.

Nonetheless, the reaction to the verdict Saturday night — by a six-person, all-female jury, which included no black jurors — suggested that years after this nation elected its first black president, racial relations remain polarized, particularly when it relates to the justice system and the police.

Obama — who had said shortly after Martin was killed that if he had a son, he would look like Martin — spoke Sunday regarding the case.

“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy,” the president said in a statement issued by the White House. “Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.

“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.

“We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”

Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, suggested that this case would galvanize young blacks in “the way the Emmett Till case did, in the way the Rodney King case did.” Emmett Till, 14, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, because he reportedly whistled at a white woman.

The NAACP called for the opening of a civil rights case against Zimmerman in an online petition addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, urged peace in the wake of the verdict. Jackson said the legal system ‘‘failed justice,’’ but violence isn’t the answer.

Black leaders questioned whether Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, would have been acquitted if he had been a black man and Martin had been white.

“I find it troubling that a 17-year-old cannot walk to a corner store for candy without putting his life in danger,” said Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta. “I find it more troubling that a citizen could not see a young African-American youth without immediately concluding that he was up to no good.”

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