The Baltimore-based NAACP and the pastor of a city mega-church were among those calling Sunday for a federal civil rights case against George Zimmerman after the Florida man was acquitted in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.
Meanwhile, a crowd numbering between 300 and 400 rallied at Baltimore's Inner Harbor to register frustration and dismay with the late Saturday verdict in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
"It was like it was my child," said Debora Evans, 57, of Baltimore, who attended the rally and choked up when she spoke about the verdict. She said it hit home for her because she is a mother. "I think black children, poor children — they're not treated the same. They don't have as much of a chance in our United States of America."
The NAACP, which shortly after the verdict put up a petition pressing the U.S. Department of Justice to act, said it quickly gained several hundred thousand signatures.
And in thundering, emotional services Sunday morning, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore told congregants that he and perhaps 100 other pastors will travel to Washington Tuesday in hopes of speaking to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
"It is not the end of it," said Bryant, an early supporter of Martin's mother, to loud affirmations and applause. "Justice must prevail."
The Justice Department said Sunday it is continuing to investigate the matter and will decide "whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction."
Martin's 2012 shooting touched off a fiery debate about race and justice in 21st century America after Zimmerman — who said he acted in self-defense — was initially not charged with a crime.
Prosecutors contended that Martin, who is black, was simply walking through Zimmerman's neighborhood after buying a snack, and that Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Peruvian, provoked an ultimately fatal confrontation after assuming the teen was up to no good. The defense team argued that Martin was the aggressor, breaking their client's nose and pummeling him against the sidewalk.
Results of the closely watched trial prompted reaction across the country, from tweets to what media reports described as largely peaceful demonstrations. Locally, members of the Baltimore People's Power Assembly gathered at the Inner Harbor Sunday morning and again in the late afternoon. The group plans another rally at 5 p.m. Monday.
The afternoon rally drew a multicultural crowd of activist groups and individuals, some speaking passionately through megaphones and microphones of how they felt the verdict was symptomatic of larger problems of race and class throughout the nation.
"The verdict for me told exactly what America feels for black men in this country," said Jonathan Gilmore, a 29-year-old Baltimore schoolteacher. "There was a definite disregard for a life here."
Gilmore, who is black, lamented the way race plays a hand in the way Baltimore children live their lives — from witnessing violence to a lack of recreational opportunities to being followed by security in the mall. "You walk out of the house differently when you're a black man," he said.
Ayo Hogans, 36, said she told her 5-year-old daughter about the Trayvon Martin case because it's important for her to understand.
Martin's "mother is never ever going to see her child again, just because one senseless person chose to take the law into his own hands," she said. "That someone feels they have the right to take someone's life with no repercussions — that's not right."
Baltimore police, who had urged people to react peacefully to the verdict, said Sunday night that there had been no reported incidents.
Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP's senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said he was happy that "the vast majority" of demonstrators "recognized that you don't have a violent demonstration to protest a violent act."
The NAACP's own protest was its Justice Department petition, launched half an hour after the verdict. As of mid-afternoon Sunday, the group said it had collected 250,000 signatures on its own site and 125,000 more at MoveOn.org.
The Justice Department said it has had an "open investigation" into Martin's death since last year, but the FBI said last year that agents did not find evidence that racial bias played a role in the shooting.
Shelton said more details could emerge if Martin's family files a civil suit.
"Looking at all the evidence, no one denies that Mr. Zimmerman was stalking Trayvon Martin," Shelton said. "Everyone says he began following him."
Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., told CNN Sunday that the FBI investigation didn't find "any inkling of racism." In an interview with NPR that day, he said his family has been flooded with graphic threats, and he took issue with the description of Martin as unarmed.
"Trayvon Martin was armed," Robert Zimmerman told NPR. "He used the sidewalk against my brother's head."
Much of the reaction to the case touched on America's troubled history with race and the justice system. Some at the Inner Harbor rally held signs comparing Martin to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955 in another racially charged case.
At Empowerment Temple Sunday morning, Bryant tapped into those feelings of unequal justice. He spoke about slavery and lynchings and fear, acknowledging the anger about the verdict and saying he woke Sunday with a "bitter taste" in his mouth, too.
But even as he vowed to go to the Justice Department about the case, he encouraged people to bring "that same anger" to the ongoing spate of killings in Baltimore and funnel it into efforts to make the city safer. His church is planning a gun buyback event in August.
"Pray that we will begin to have a restoration of the value of human life," Bryant said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.
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