published Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Hundreds attend Trayvon Martin rally in downtown Chattanooga

Protesters chant as they march along Broad Street.
Protesters chant as they march along Broad Street.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

They came with Skittles, hoodies and the National Lawyers Guild.

More than 300 people packed Miller Park for the "Justice for Trayvon" National Day of Action on Saturday afternoon. Chattanooga was among 100 cities with organized efforts protesting the July 13 verdict declaring George Zimmerman not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Locals and visitors alike took to the park to voice concerns on race in America.

"Our youth are in peril," said Kevin Muhammad, a Nation of Islam representative. "Our youth are in trouble. Trayvon Martin is one of our youth. Do not blame young people. Blame ourselves for not preparing them. Our young people are killing each other out of hatred for each other."

Muhammad's words mark a larger call to action for black families deciding how to raise their children in the wake of Martin's slaying.

Gloria Griffith, 65, has two grandchildren. She often worries about her 19-year-old grandson going out by himself.

"If he's getting ready to walk home, I tell him to please call me," Griffith said. "If he's ready to leave, I will come and pick him up no matter what time it is. I'm even cautious of him this weekend spending time with a friend."

Her fears even extend to 3-year-old Jayden Griffith.

"You gotta worry about this little guy here," Griffith said. "He's so free-hearted, he'd go up to anybody and speak to them. One day, he will be 18. What will happen to him? You just have to think about it."

Some opinions at Miller Park about raising youth were less popular, though.

"We've got to teach our kids how to survive in this country," Henry Layton said. "They can wear a hoodie, but a hoodie's gonna get them killed."

Boos and hisses followed from the crowd. Janelle Jackson, spokeswoman for local activist group Concerned Citizens for Justice, was quick to reply.

"I feel like we represent the youth, and we're committed to change the culture so it can be whatever we want to wear," Jackson said.

Concerned Citizens for Justice issued a list of formal goals, including solutions to gang violence, a petition for the federal government to bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman and the abolition of "stand your ground" laws.

"I've been spending the last few days literally running around Chattanooga handing out fliers," CCJ member Mark Gilliland said. "I've never seen the sort of response we've had to this."

The 21-year-old started his Saturday of protest by illustrating black fists on a protest sign.

"I believe that white supremacy is a lasting problem," he said. "As a white person, it is my responsibility to overturn that system."

Dominic Pennington, Gilliland's protest ally and friend since elementary school, said the focus on race is nothing new.

"The reality is that cases like this happen all the time, and the only reason there's such a mass movement is because it was so publicized," he said.

After the fervent oratory the crowd took to the street, marching up Market to Fourth and back down Broad Street.

The massive flow of people blocked traffic at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Broad Street for a few minutes.

"You don't have to stop," Gilliland said, in a red bandanna that signified him as a group marshal. "We have the power here."

The mass of homemade signs elicited honks of support from the city's evening traffic, and chants made the group's message audible within cars.

"What we gonna do to make Chatt-town rise?" the crowd asked. "Educate. Motivate. Organize."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6592.

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