PROTESTS WERE HELD across the US today after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, in a racially charged trial that transfixed the country.
The trial aroused strong passions among those who believed that Zimmerman – a volunteer neighborhood watchman whose father is white and whose mother is Peruvian – racially profiled and stalked Martin, and those convinced he acted in self-defence.
Spontaneous protests broke out overnight in US cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and Atlanta, with larger organized gatherings planned later today.
In Oakland, California, protesters smashed windows and spray painted cars, but most overnight demonstrations were peaceful — and closely watched by police.
The 29-year-old Zimmerman had been accused of shooting black teenager Trayvon Martin on 26 February 2012. The neighbourhood watch volunteer claimed self-defence.
The investigation into the 17-year-old’s death and subsequent trial has been marked by racial tensions, with a number of suggestions that racism tainted the initial police probe.
Many are convinced that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin on the fateful night and that is why he pursued him through the gated community in Sanford, Florida.
However, defence lawyers insisted that Zimmerman acted in self-defence after Martin wrestled him to the ground and slammed his head on the pavement. Martin was unarmed.
According to Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, people who fear for their lives can use deadly force to defend themselves without having to flee a confrontation.
The killing led to mass marches in several US cities after police initially declined to press charges against Zimmerman.
Rallies against the verdict have been peaceful so far but authorities have taken measures in case matters escalate. The LAPD are on heightened alert as hundreds gather in Leimert Park to hold a rally. Other marches have been held in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and Atlanta.
Community leaders have called for calm in the wake of the trial. The NAACP, the largest US civil rights group, urged supporters to sign a letter asking Attorney General Eric Holder to file civil charges against Zimmerman. It reads:
The most fundamental of civil rights – the right to life – was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
On Twitter, Trayvon’s father Tracy posted:
But others are angry. Activist Al Sharpton posted a statement on Facebook describing Zimmerman’s acquittal as “a slap in the face to the American people,” and said that he was convening “an emergency call with preachers (to) discuss next steps”.
People watch a news ticker in Times Square deliver the news that George Zimmerman was found not guilty. Carlo Allegri/AP/Press Association Images
According to reports, Zimmerman smiled briefly but was not emotional as the jury, made up of six women, returned the verdict after 16 hours of deliberations.
He faced possible life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. The jury was also instructed to consider an alternate charge of manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 30 years.
“Obviously, we are ecstatic with the results. George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense,” said his lead attorney Mark O’Mara.
Defence attorney Don West was even more blunt. “I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful,” he said.
-Additional reporting by AFP
First published 7.52am