TAMPA — A month after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and days after a group protesting the state’s self-defense laws ended its occupation in Tallahassee, Tampa residents are still searching for answers.
Specifically, the young black population.
Almost 300 teenagers spent Saturday afternoon at Beulah Baptist International Church for a forum that organizers hope will catch on in other cities across the country. Panelists — including black attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers and other teens — spoke to the group on several topics, from racial profiling to how the Zimmerman case affected them and their professions.
“They have questions,” organizer Monica Williams Harris said about the group. “They’re the future. So you really need to put the tools behind them to give them a voice.”
Harris, a Tampa attorney, organized the summit, titled “United and Moving Forward,” when her 16-year-old daughter came to her with questions after the verdict was announced in July. Harris figured if her daughter had questions, so did other young people, she said.
So, she decided to organize the forum, hosted jointly by the local chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
“Once word got out, people got on board,” Harris said.
Discussion topics included specifics of the case and the verdict, as well as how to recognize and respond to racial profiling.
State Sen. Chris Smith heard about Harris’ plans and wanted to speak. “I felt it a duty to come over and help teach them about ‘stand your ground,’ self-defense and what we should do going forward,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
He encouraged them to use social media and to comment on online articles, anything to make their opinions heard by their legislators.
“Let them know you have a voice and you want some change,” Smith said.
Young people have been at the forefront of the Trayvon Martin movement since the beginning, said Natalie Jackson, local counsel for Martin’s family and a speaker at the summit. It was a college student who brought media attention to the shooting in the first place, she said. The Dream Defenders, the group of protesters in Tallahassee, are all young people.
“I think that people like to focus on the case and the trial, but it’s so much bigger than that,” Jackson said. “It’s about young people finding a voice and being political.”
And not just blacks, she said. The groups protesting the verdict are multiracial. “For anyone who is kind of depressed about race relations right now, take a look at the young people,” Jackson said.
Damani Eason, a 16-year-old Jesuit High School student, came to the forum because he had some unanswered questions about racial profiling that he says aren’t addressed by the media or the school system.
He said he is profiled all the time as he travels abroad to countries such as Jamaica and the Netherlands. Every time, he said, airport security pulls him aside, pats him down and searches his bags.
But after listening to the forum speakers, Eason said he knows he can’t blame an entire group or race for the profiling.
“I just have to accept the fact that everybody isn’t perfect,” he said.
Harris said some of her friends and family are trying to organize similar forums in other cities. “The desire is to use this as a template for other communities around the state,” Harris said.
It is important for young people everywhere to realize they can play a part in political issues like ‘stand your ground,’ immigration and minimum mandatory drug sentences, Jackson said.
The reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is about more than just race, she said. “This is a movement.”