PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly 200 people gathered in Portland’s Monument Square Monday night to commemorate 17-year-old Florida shooting victim Trayvon Martin and call for an end to the so-called stand-your-ground laws that the teenager’s shooter used in his defense.
The event came against the backdrop of two new nationwide polls, released Monday, which found steep chasms between whites and blacks in terms of their perceptions of the controversial shooting and subsequent murder trial of George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was found not guilty in the case, in part because of Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which allows an individual to legally use force against a perceived threat without any requirement that the individual first attempt to escape the confrontation.
“I’m not here tonight to retry George Zimmerman or to argue about who’s right and who’s wrong in the jury,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan during the rally. “What I am here to do is argue against those laws that … allow what happened in Sanford, Fla., and led to the death of Trayvon Martin. Those laws need to be put on trial and repealed across the country.”
Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch coordinator, was found not guilty of murder this month in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Martin, a black teenager. The high-profile case has been been protested by many civil rights groups as an example of racial inequality, first because Zimmerman was not initially charged in the shooting, and subsequently after a jury found him not guilty.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the case, but critics have pointed to the fact that Martin was unarmed and that police subsequently reported that there was no indication the teen was involved in criminal activity at the time of the shooting.
Various speakers at the Monday night event urged support for myriad causes in the wake of the verdict, such as stronger gun control laws and the federal End Racial Profiling Act, which if passed would prohibit racial profiling for any purpose by law enforcement agencies.
Maine does not have a stand-your-ground law — in some states called “shoot first” or “line-in-the-sand” laws — and many of the state’s communities have ordinances blocking racial profiling by police, including Portland, Westbrook and Lewiston.
Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP Portland branch, told Monday night’s gathering her organization is leading a call for a U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether Zimmerman can be prosecuted for federal civil rights law violations.
“We’re not here to demonize George Zimmerman, but we do have a right to demand a federal investigation into this case,” she said.
According to pair of polls released Monday, opinion about the Zimmerman trial is deeply divided along racial and political lines nationwide.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,002 adults questioned between Thursday and Sunday found that 86 percent of blacks disagree with the not guilty verdict, while a majority of whites — 51 percent — agree with it.
Among white respondents, the Washington Post reported, 70 percent of Republicans approved of the verdict compared to just 30 percent of Democrats who did.
A separate poll of 1,480 Americans conducted between Wednesday and Sunday by the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of white respondents felt the issue of race in the Martin case has been getting more attention than it deserves, while just 13 percent of blacks questioned in the poll agreed that the topic of race has been overblown. In that poll, 49 percent of whites said they were satisfied with the Zimmerman verdict, while 30 percent said they were dissatisfied and 21 percent didn’t know how they felt.
A large majority of black respondents — 86 percent — said they were dissatisfied by the verdict in comparison, the Pew Research Center poll found. Another 9 percent of black survey takers said they didn’t know, and just 5 percent reported that they were satisfied with the result of the trial.
Joining Ross and Brennan at Monday evening’s rally were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Center for African Heritage, Centro Latino Maine, EqualityMaine, Hispanic Ministry of Portland, Maine Council of Churches, Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, Maine League of Young Voters, Maine People’s Alliance, Maine Women’s Lobby, Southern Maine Workers’ Center and the Unity Project.