SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched on Saturday in the Florida city where unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin was shot dead a month ago to demand that police arrest the neighborhood watch volunteer who says he was acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger.
“We want arrests, shot in the chest,” the protesters chanted. Civil rights leaders Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson took part in the protest in Sanford organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
With gospel music playing in the background, protesters marched from a high school through a predominantly black neighborhood to a rally at the Sanford Police Station. The throng stretched for blocks, weaving past homes, churches and small businesses, many of them boarded up.
Demonstrators called for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain who admitted shooting the 17-year-old Martin in the chest with a semiautomatic handgun on February 26. Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, had called the 911 emergency number to report a “suspicious” person and followed Martin against the dispatcher’s advice.
Authorities decided not to arrest Zimmerman.
“We’re here to say, ‘Save our sons.’ Bring Mr. Zimmerman to justice,” Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP civil rights organization, said at the march.
A public outcry over the slaying has prompted state and federal investigations and triggered charges of racial bias. President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, on March 23 compared Martin to a son he doesn’t have and calling for American “soul searching” over how the incident occurred.
Speakers at the rally said they were committed to non-violence and that Martin’s death served as a wake-up call on issues such as the abundance of weapons on the street, the level of violence in U.S. society and the struggle for racial equality.
“It is not just racial profiling. It is bank profiling, healthcare profiling,” Jackson said. “The disparity in this country is growing. ... There is a meanness in our country today.”
Jealous and Sharpton denied media reports that Sharpton planned to call for an economic boycott of Sanford or the surrounding central Florida area, calling it a “media fabrication.”
“Put to rest the rumor that there is any discussion of a boycott of the community,” Jealous told reporters.
Zimmerman told police that he was walking back to his vehicle when Martin attacked him and slammed his head against the ground and that he shot in self defense. Police declined to arrest Zimmerman citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives wide latitude to use deadly force when a threat is perceived.
Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod, writing by Jane Sutton,; Editing by Greg McCune and Will Dunham