The cry rang up and down Charlottesville’s rainy Downtown Mall last Wednesday evening, a call-and-answer chant heard at rallies across the country in the weeks since George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the February 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
“I am!” “Trayvon Martin!”
But Eden Zekarias, the UVA third-year who organized the local rally and vigil in response to the July 13 verdict, had a reminder for the 200 people who gathered in the rain outside City Hall to make speeches, remember, and march in Martin’s name.
“The truth is that not everybody is Trayvon Martin,” Zekarias said. “If we should gather one thing from this event, it is that if we were all Trayvon, we would not be here today speaking these words.”
Some Americans are subject to discrimination, even criminalization, because of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, or monetary worth, she said, “so if we’re going to have a serious conversation about Trayvon, we must first see that these things exist.”
Zekarias, a double major in public policy and leadership and African-American studies from Fairfax, said she didn’t want a case seen by many as evidence of institutionalized racism—a black kid shot and killed by someone who thought he was up to no good, who was then cleared of wrongdoing—to go unrecognized in Charlottesville.
“I didn’t want there to be no response, for people to have nothing to do,” she said.
She pulled together a number of local groups and organizers to spread the word and speak at the event: Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice board member Bill Anderson, First Baptist Church pastor Hodari Hamilton, local NAACP president Rick Turner, and teacher and youth advocate Wes Bellamy. Their support and the crowds that braved the weather to hear speeches and march the length of the Mall for a vigil outside the federal courthouse at the corner of Ridge and Water streets were proof that the case struck a nerve here, said Zekarias.
Vigil attendee Glenetta Smith-Toliver raised two sons and a stepson in Charlottesville, and said African-American parents’ fear that their boys will be targeted because they’re black is real and justified.
“It could have been my son,” she said. “I want to see justice, not just for black kids, or white kids, or Hispanic kids—for all of them.”
Despite a brief moment of disharmony when conservative talk radio host Joe Thomas was booed for calling on rally attendants to push for gun rights, “because someday, it’s going to be your son or your daughter, God forbid, who has to stand their ground”—a speech bookended by others’ calls for stricter gun control measures—the message coming out of the gathering was unified: To avoid another Trayvon Martin case, the U.S. and its legal system need to change to recognize and correct racial disparities.
It’s a shift that needs to start locally, said Bellamy, who circulated a petition calling for monthly discussions about issues of race at the city level.
“This issue is not one that will go away,” he said. “We will push for this until our kids are 55 and 60 years old. This is a discussion that must always occur until racism is no more.”