Reaction to Zimmerman Verdict Highlights The Problem With Protests: When The Message Misses The Mark

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes

America is an amazing country, founded on the concepts of freedom and liberty. We the people are free to assemble, free to shout our beliefs from the rooftops, free to speak out against and question those in power when we disagree with them. These are fundamental rights in our country and should never be taken for granted, nor prohibited. In response to the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict in the Zimmerman trial in Florida, droves of people have come together and spoken out against the verdict, sharing their outrage from coast to coast. While I absolutely support their right to do so, I have to wonder if there aren’t large pockets of protestors whose motives have nothing to do with getting justice for Trayvon Martin. When the protest does not reflect its stated intention, it cheapens the meaning of the movement.

The Zimmerman verdict was handed down on a weekend; while news traveled fast on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it took some time for Martin supporters to turn their outrage into action. By Monday, protests were springing up around the country. While rallies in Times Square and Manhattan were generally peaceful, gatherings elsewhere took a violent, chaotic turn from respectful rallies to rioting and looting.

Image by @susie_c

Image by @susie_c

 

Last Monday night, the LAPD declared an unlawful assembly and issued a tactical alert after a rally in the Crenshaw district got out of hand. Late in the evening, witnesses reported seeing rioters set fires, assault bystanders and vandalize cars and businesses. Earlier Monday, a group of protesters stormed a Wal-Mart on Crenshaw Boulevard as guards hurried to close the security gates. Per the LA Times, witnesses saw “people storm inside the store and begin throwing merchandise onto the ground. Some tried to break open the glass jewelry displays”. A short time later, LAPD officers wearing helmets and carrying batons swarmed the store to disperse the looters. (The Wal-Mart store had to close early for cleanup and reopened the following day.) Beyond the Wal-Mart incident, some protesters hurled chunks of concrete at officers on Vernon Avenue, according to the LAPD. Helicopter footage showed angry rioters jumping on cars, breaking storefront windows, setting fires in curbside trash cans and attacking bystanders. The violent outbursts put stress on commuters as automobiles were trapped and bus service was cancelled, according to the Metro.

Protestors jumping on vehicles. -Reuters

Protesters jumping on vehicles. -Reuters

 

 

In Oakland, police turned on protesters with tear gas and concussive grenades in response to youths smashing windows and throwing rocks at members of the media. Oakland Police Department spokeswoman told The LA Times that members of the crowd threw bottles and fireworks at police officers, smashed store windows and burned U.S. flags. One man, a waiter, was hit in the face with a hammer during the chaos. By mid-week, city leaders and law enforcement agencies across California were issuing warnings that stronger action would be taken in response to rioting, and outbursts sharply decreased.

Instead of breaking windows, vandalizing cars or otherwise causing mayhem, some individuals had different ideas for showing their outrage at the Zimmerman verdict. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” labeled Florida, “The Worst State” in the nation. Music legend Stevie Wonder announced, "I decided today that until the 'Stand Your Ground' law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again. As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world." Wonder has also called for fans to support his boycott. During the NAACP's national convention in Orlando last week, Martin Luther King III said one way to protest the state's controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law is to stop consuming Florida orange juice. "The true way generally when people don't understand your plight is when you decide to exercise your buying power elsewhere," King said. A petition on MoveOn.org and various Facebook pages have also urged people to boycott Florida tourism and Florida-based products.

These developments are puzzling to me. Those acting out claim that they are outraged and/or devastated by the verdict in the Zimmerman case and want to honor Trayvon Martin’s memory and fight to bring him justice, but there is nothing honorable in their actions. As Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles)–speaker at the prayer rally in Los Angeles that developed into the Crenshaw uprising–stated: “Violence does nothing to help Trayvon and the Martin family get the justice they deserve and only distracts from the thousands of Americans who have signed petitions urging that the Justice Department pursue federal charges…Our focus should continue to be on peaceful mobilization and active participation toward solutions. That’s the best way to support the family during this very difficult time.” She’s right, of course–how does trashing a Wal-Mart, smashing in storefronts and setting garbage cans ablaze honor someone’s memory? Many of those businesses had to shut down, clean up, throw out damaged items and repair their storefronts. These are local businesses that have now lost money as a result of the protestors’ actions. Instead of honoring anyone, the rioters have hurt their own neighbors and neighborhoods. Not a great way to send a message of hope or to bring about healing.

Photo courtesy of "dno1967b"

Photo courtesy of "dno1967b"

As for those choosing to boycott Florida’s business and travel industry, how does that help? Refusing to buy orange juice or visit Disney World just means that employees–Florida residents–will likely face unemployment or at least a loss of income, which hurts local families. How does that secure justice for Trayvon? The target of these protestors’ anger is the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, yet Zimmerman’s own attorney did not even invoke that law in his defense efforts. Furthermore, nineteen other states have the same law in place. Do protestors realize that? Are they ready and willing to forgo traveling to or buying products from roughly 40% of America?

March peacefully, lobby your state’s legislators, speak out, run for office, join your own neighborhood watch groups or other community organizations, reach out to your neighbors, share kind words with strangers…there are many ways to honor someone. When a movement loses its focus, it cannot achieve its intended purpose.