SANFORD, Florida/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Demonstrators symbolically wearing hoodies gathered in New York and Florida on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, reviving a national discussion on gun laws and racial profiling.
Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, 17, in the Orlando suburb of Sanford on February 26, 2012, and initially went free based on his claims of self-defense. But a national outcry forced the city’s police chief to resign and the governor to appoint a special prosecutor.
Zimmerman now faces second-degree murder charges. He has maintained his innocence, and supporters say he has been unfairly tainted as racist, noting the neighborhood had been hit by a wave of break-ins and that Zimmerman is of mixed race - his father is white and his mother Afro-Peruvian.
In Sanford, the case triggered deep emotions, and protesters planned a candlelight vigil and moment of silence at 7:15 p.m., the time Martin was killed.
The Sanford vigil was organized by Geri Hepburn, a white parent of a teenage son who became politically active as a result of the shooting.
“I figure it’s a lifelong thing,” Hepburn said as demonstrators began to gather in a park.
In New York, demonstrators recreated the “Million Hoodie March” of last year, when people wore hooded sweatshirts in the style worn by Martin the night of his death, when Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious looking person in his gated neighborhood and defied a police admonishment not to follow him.
Martin was on his way home to the house of his father’s girlfriend, and the hoodie became a symbol of what critics considered racial profiling.
“We are all Trayvon Martin,” a few dozen New York demonstrators chanted, many of them wearing hoodies.
James Flood, 33, a black bartender and screenwriter, said he was constantly the victim of racial profiling and wanted better for his 11-year-old son.
“My skin color cannot change no matter how much money I make. I still get profiled,” Flood said. “It has to stop. ... My child is only 11 years of age now. This could have been him.”
Zimmerman, 29, remained out of sight on the anniversary, preparing for a high-profile murder trial scheduled for June.
Thrust into the national spotlight, Martin’s grieving parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, have become national advocates for stricter gun control laws and critics of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. They were due to be the featured speakers at the New York event, in Manhattan’s Union Square.
The law, passed in 2005, allows people to use lethal force in self-defense if they are in fear of serious bodily harm. More than 20 states have since passed similar laws.
Police cited that law in initially declining to arrest Zimmerman, which sparked celebrity protests and popular demonstrations across the country, turning the case into international story.
Amid the controversy, the Sanford police chief stepped down and Florida Governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor, who charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. A judge granted him bail and ordered him to remain in Florida pending trial.
Zimmerman’s attorney plans to invoke the Stand Your Ground law at an April 29 hearing at which a Florida judge could determine if the law applied to Zimmerman, possibly granting him immunity and averting a criminal trial.
“We just want to have that trial, and let the jury decide,” Fulton, the teen’s mother, told CNN. “And whatever decision comes out of that, we’re going to accept that. We may not like it, but we’re going to accept it.”
Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky