Over the last three weeks, the trial of George Zimmerman sparked heated discussion over race issues in the U.S., including among USF students.
Some student groups gathered at an on-campus vigil, while others participated in a protest rally off-campus Sunday in hopes of continuing conversation in wake of the “not guilty” verdict.
Zimmerman was accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012.
A member of the neighborhood watch committee, Zimmerman was following the black teenager, saying he looked suspicious.
According to police records, Zimmerman said he was returning to his vehicle when Martin confronted him, and a fight ensued. Zimmerman admitted to shooting the teen. But jurors found that he was within his rights under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which gives individuals the right to self-defense when they have reason to believe there is an unlawful threat.
On campus, members of the community gathered to share their thoughts and prayers at a candlelight vigil led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter at USF.
The vigil, which had around 100 students in attendance, began with a prayer for the deceased Martin, followed by conversation about the Zimmerman trial and surrounding issues.
Dain McGlashion, president of the NAACP at USF and a sophomore majoring in industrial engineering, said the event was necessary following the “not guilty” verdict that resulted in many vehement reactions on social media.
“After yesterday’s ruling, a lot of people are probably angry,” McGlashion said. “As long as we can get to speak about the issues openly instead of verbally attacking each other, we can prevent any discrimination and come together.”
In the comfort of one another, students shared their views of the trial.
Some called it a “travesty,” while others put the issue of justice in “God’s hands,” and many questioned issues of racism, self-defense and justice in society.
One student at the candlelight vigil was Cornelius Williams, who said he knew Martin growing up in Miami and considered him a cousin or little brother.
“I wanted Trayvon’s life to mean something,” he said.
Despite conflicting emotions following the trial, Williams said he understands the verdict, which he said was based only on the evidence that the state was able to provide.
He said there are three parts to the story — what witnesses perceive to have happened, what Zimmerman said happened and what Trayvon could’ve said happened, if he were still alive to testify in court.
“We couldn’t get the whole truth,” he said. “The jury was basing their decision only off the sides that could be presented.”
More than a year after Martin’s death, Williams urged community members to avoid “senseless violence” or attacks on those who side with Zimmerman because it will only “lead to more families being hurt.”
In downtown Tampa, another group of students gathered to voice their concerns.
Chanting “No justice, No peace!” protesters demanded changes to what they said is a broken justice system that rewards white offenders and oppresses minorities.
In response to the verdict, students and local activists marched on the federal courthouse.
Crowds began gathering in Curtis Hixon Park at 5 p.m., and protesters expressed their collective anger about the verdict and the issue of racism and oppression in black and Hispanic communities in Tampa.
Veronica Antonio Juarez, a sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences and a member of the activist group Tampa Dream Defenders, traveled with the group and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to Sanford, Fla. on Saturday to hear the verdict handed down.
At the protest on Sunday, she called for the court to review its decision.
“He killed a 17-year-old boy and got away with it. We can’t allow this,” Antonio Juarez said.
She said she was also there to protest the larger issue that the Zimmerman case represented.
“This is not just one isolated case,” Antonio Juarez said. “There are a number of cases similar to this where the white offender has gotten away with murdering a person of color. This verdict sends the message that people of color’s lives are not as important, and that’s something we need to stand up against.”
Megan Milanese, a graduate student in public health, joined protesters in hopes of spreading awareness of how racism manifests itself in society. She said she also hopes the case sparks a more nuanced conversation about the topic.12