Southern California politicians, law experts and civil rights activists
expressed a range of emotions Sunday in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal
on all charges in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
While some said the outcome of the Florida trial was "heart-wrenching" and "a great tragedy," others said they accepted or welcomed the decision since it appeared there was insufficient evidence to convict the neighborhood watch volunteer who said he shot the 17-year-old in self defense.
The case has both captivated and polarized the nation, igniting fierce debates on racial profiling, self-defense and gun control.
"There's no question that if the young man (Martin) had been my son, he would be walking the streets today," said ACLU of Southern California Chief Counsel Mark Rosenbaum, who is white and said he was speaking on his own behalf. "The notion that an unarmed young man could somehow pose a threat to an individual who was following him, it's an insult to the decency of the country...This is the sort of case that you would think had happened in Jim Crow (days); you don't think these things happen in 2013. It's just a reminder that race still matters in tragic ways."
But Covina Mayor Walter Allen III, who is African-American and has worked in law enforcement for more than 35 years, said while the whole situation is "extremely tragic" and his heart goes out to Martin's family, he had a feeling that Zimmerman was going
to be acquitted.
"I felt that based upon the evidence I heard, I just didn't feel the standards were met for a second-degree murder charge or for manslaughter either," Allen said.
While the fatal shooting should never have happened, Allen said it was hard for him to judge if race was a factor in Martin's death.
"It's a mayor and police chief's worst nightmare to have something like this happen," he said. "The last thing you want is for something like this to become a racially-charged issue."
Police said a protest of at least 150 people took place at Leimert Plaza Park in South Los Angeles on Saturday night. KNX 1070 reporter Claudia Peschiutta said police shot her in the thigh with a bean bag round at about 1 a.m. Sunday after demonstrators started marching north on Crenshaw Boulevard near the 10 Freeway.
LAPD Officer Rosario Herrera confirmed that police fired about six bean bag rounds and issued a dispersal order after a motorcycle officer was surrounded by protestors. Herrera said she did not know whether any one else was hit. No arrests were made in that incident.
Zimmerman, who had been charged with second-degree murder and the lesser degree of manslaughter, maintained the February 2012 shooting of Martin, who was returning from the store that night with a bag of skittles and an iced tea, was an act of self-defense. Prosecutors painted Zimmerman as a vigilante who pursued Martin because he assumed he was up to no good and then took the law into his own hand against the instructions of a police dispatcher.
Danielle Thompson, press secretary for the National Association for Gun Rights, said via email that gun owners never hope to see a day where they are forced to use lethal weapons to defend themselves.
"We believe in the justice system and that the jury made the right decision based on the evidence provided," she said.
John Nockleby, a Loyola Law School professor, said he is troubled that the conflict between Zimmerman and Martin appears to have been precipitated by Zimmerman.
"If George Zimmerman hadn't gone looking for trouble, Trayvon Martin would still be alive," he said. "I think that's what is upsetting a lot of people in the country now."
But whether Zimmerman precipitated or created the conflict doesn't matter under Florida law since it does not require someone to step back from a confrontation.
"Florida law is terrible on this issue; it's one thing to say it's an unjust outcome, that something wrong happened here. It's another thing to say that under the law, he is guilty," Nockleby said. "Those are two very different propositions because Florida law allowed George Zimmerman to stand there instead of backing off, and that resulted in the death of this teenager."
The Florida Legislature, he added, should revisit the law.
Los Angeles Councilman Bernard Parks, who formerly served as the city's police chief for five years, said many people view a tragic incident as automatically criminal but that's not necessarily the case. And no matter what the outcome of the trial, he said, it hasn't changed the tragic outcome that led to a young man losing his life.
"I think the way the case was presented by the prosecution...in my judgement they didn't help themselves or the case by leaving so many holes and questions unresolved; those unresolved questions played into the hands of the defense, saying there was a reasonable doubt," Parks said. In the future, Zimmerman could very well be sued in a civil case by Martin's family for negligently causing Martin's death or the U.S. Attorney's office could decide to pursue the case on civil rights violations, he said.
Ralph Walker, a Covina-based community activist and a talk show host with Monrovia's K-GEM, said with Zimmerman's acquittal, in a strange and twisted kind of way, it was as if the slain Martin was himself found guilty.
For Zimmerman to have gotten off "scott free is heart-wrenching," Walker said.
For Walker and others in the community, the case has called to mind the 1955 Mississippi murder of a 14-year-old black boy who reportedly flirted with a white cashier at a grocery store. The two white suspects were tried for murder but acquitted by an all-white jury.
"When you go from Emmett Till and you talk about justice and fast forward to Trayvon Martin, black males are an endangered species in America and always have been profiled...As an African-American male, what do you tell your sons when you venture out at night? The sad part is, who's going to be next? Because you know it's not the end."
Arcadia Councilman Bob Harbicht said he respects both the court system and the verdict, and said he wasn't surprised by the decision.
"I followed the coverage in the newspaper; it was clearly a case of reasonable doubt," he said. "I'm like everyone else. I don't know what happened that night but the evidence presented that I could see in the coverage, I couldn't see how they could come up with anything but not guilty."
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