Mass Florida rally after US black teen shot dead

Paula Bustamante
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The mostly African-American crowd demanded the arrest of Zimmerman

Protesters demonstrate at a rally for slain teenager Trayvon Martin on March 22, in Sanford, Florida. Thousands of people outraged by the fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager by a white crime watch volunteer gathered to vent their anger and demand justice at a rally in the Florida town

Thousands of people outraged by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white crime watch volunteer gathered to vent their anger and demand justice at a rally in a Florida town.

The vast crowd, which overwhelmed the town's Fort Mellon Park, clamored for justice in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old who was shot dead by self-appointed watch captain George Zimmerman in a gated Florida community on February 26.

The mostly African-American crowd demanded the arrest of Zimmerman, who claims he acted in self-defense after a confrontation with the teenager. Zimmerman has been neither detained nor charged with any crime.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, who has been criticized for failing to arrest Zimmerman, announced just ahead of the rally that he was temporarily leaving his post because he had become a "distraction."

"I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks," Lee said at a press conference.

The victim's father, Tracy Martin, demanded more action.

"The temporary stepdown of Lee is nothing. We want an arrest. We want a conviction and we want an arrest of the murderer of our son," he told the crowd as it gathered in Sanford.

Officials at Sanford sheriff's office said between 15,000 and 20,000 people came to the peaceful rally, which featured Trayvon Martin's parents, African-American Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton, and several black religious figures.

Protesters drove from across Florida and even neighboring states to shake their fists in anger.

"The racial factor played a role in this case," said Karen Curry, 33, who came to the rally with her family.

"How could it be possible that the police officer didn't arrest the guy that shot a young guy and left him there as a piece of trash?" she asked AFP.

Jeffree Fauntleroy, a retired police officer in Florida who drove to Sanford from Tampa with his wife, was especially incensed.

"This is a poor example of police job," he said. "There are too many wrong things in this case, and something like that would never happen to a white boy, that is so sad."

Tracy Mean, 45, said she drove two and a half hours "to support this family and claim for an investigation. We have a beautiful and smart 18 year old boy, and we know that something like that could happen to him just because he is black."

Diane Culmin, 65, drove even further -- four and a half hours from Miami -- "with my two teenage grandsons to support this family and to show them how racism is still alive in some parts of our country."

The grandchildren "need to understand that the civil rights fight continue in 2012. The (suspension) of the police chief here is not enough -- we want Zimmerman arrested," she said. "We need an explanation as a community."

People at the rally handed out flyers with statements like "We Want Justice" and "Trayvon RIP, We'll finish your fight Baby."

Clergymen who spoke at the rally called for a protest march Monday outside the Sanford courthouse.

The US Justice Department, the FBI, the state attorney's office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are also investigating the case.

Local police say they believe Zimmerman cannot be prosecuted thanks to a Florida law that lets state residents use lethal force in self-defense.

The extent of anger in the explosive case and the degree to which it has dominated the national media is surprising even for the United States, where lingering racial wounds regularly become national talking points.

Those crying for Zimmerman's arrest have noted that he called the police several times while tracking the actions of the teenager, whom he said looked "real suspicious," according to transcripts released by police.

Although dispatchers told him not to pursue the youngster, Zimmerman apparently followed him anyway and shot him with his 9mm handgun. The exact circumstances of the shooting, however, remain unclear.

Many point to the incident as the latest example of the racial profiling and unjust treatment of blacks by the country's criminal justice system.

Sanford's city manager Norton Bonaparte called for an independent review of police action.

On Wednesday, "A Million Hoodies March" drew several hundred people in New York wearing the same sort of sweatshirt that Martin wore when he was shot.