Zimmerman's acquittal hits close to home for some protesters

Pittsburgh rally mirrored more than 100 others in the nation

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Tameka Davis, 42, of Penn Hills is generally a fan of court television. But while much of the nation was glued to the trial of George Zimmerman in Florida over the past month, she decided to sit this one out.

Ms. Davis, who is African-American, said she anticipated from the start that Mr. Zimmerman would be acquitted in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And with three sons, ages 15, 20 and 24, she said the case cut too close to home. It is scary to imagine that something similar could happen to her sons when they walk down the street, Ms. Davis said.

So on Saturday afternoon, Ms. Davis joined about 300 other Pittsburgh residents in front of the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, Downtown to protest racial profiling. She said that, in particular, she wanted to find out what she could to help change Pennsylvania's stand-your-ground law, a type of self-defense legislation that has come under nationwide scrutiny since the Martin case.

The nearly three-hour Pittsburgh rally, organized by the Alliance for Police Accountability, mirrored similar gatherings that took place in more than 100 cities across the nation Saturday. Activists are calling on the government to pursue civil-rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman.

"We have a system that targets African-American men. It jails African-American men. And it reduces them to second-class citizenship," Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess said at the protest.

Local artists, community organizers and political officials delivered speeches, played music and read poetry during the rally. They also used the venue as an opportunity to address issues of police brutality and accountability within Pittsburgh.

Protesters repeatedly mentioned the locally high-profile case of Jordan Miles, the African-American high school student beaten by three white city police officers in Homewood in 2010, as another example of injustice, they said. The officers in the Miles case were partially vindicated in a federal trial last year; a second civil trial is set for November.

Mr. Burgess said efforts to promote dignity and respect for all cannot stop with Mr. Miles and Trayvon Martin.

"We are in crisis in Pittsburgh," Mr. Burgess said. "The relationship between the community and the police is in crisis."

Dewitt Walton of the Hill District, who attended the rally, said he thinks the Florida jury ignored the facts of the case in choosing to acquit Mr. Zimmerman. But echoing statements made by organizers of the rally, Mr. Walton said the Martin case should strengthen the resolve of the African-American and other communities to bring about change in the nation.

"All of this is dependent upon people becoming more motivated to engage in the political process to hold policymakers accountable," said Mr. Walton, who works for the United Steelworkers and is a member of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization of black trade unionists.

Like Ms. Davis, a number of the speakers also took issue with Pennsylvania's Castle Doctrine, which allows a homeowner to protect himself instead of having to retreat, and includes the state's version of the stand-your-ground law. Florida's version of the law was never specifically invoked by Mr. Zimmerman's attorneys, though it was referenced in instructions to the jury.

Saturday's rally came a day after President Barack Obama unexpectedly offered his first extended comments on the Trayvon Martin case and entangled issues of race. He noted at a news conference that Martin "could have been me 35 years ago."

Bariki Hall, 80, of Penn Hills said it is important that Mr. Obama made clear his personal take on the case.

"He finally woke up. He realized he's not just the president of the United States -- he's a black man, a black father," Ms. Hall said. "That put an end to where the president stands."

Liberty Avenue between 10th Street and Grant Street was closed to traffic by police during the rally to accommodate the crowd.

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Gavan Gideon: ggideon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4910 First Published July 20, 2013 8:15 PM


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