More than 100 people gathered just before noon Saturday outside the Honey Bowen Building, marched about a mile along South Main Street and held a rally outside the Bulloch County Courthouse.
Their cause: “Justice for Trayvon.”
The organizers -- a group of Georgia Southern University students calling themselves “The Caucus,” -- set up the march and rally to support a nationwide push for more than 100 similar rallies.
It was in response to the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in a Sanford, Fla., neighborhood and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal by a Florida jury.
The march started on the sidewalk, then moved onto the northbound lane of South Main Street close around Jones Avenue. Protesters -- including GSU students, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro -- stayed in the street until they reached the intersection with East and West Main streets, then marched onto the courthouse lawn, where the rally took place.
“Statesboro’s really no different than Sanford, Fla., we know that,” said the Rev. Jane Altman Page, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “There are many in this community, and maybe many of us here, who harbor prejudices against folks who may be different from us. And when those prejudices are accompanied by power and support -- support -- of the legal system the results are devastating, especially for minorities and, especially, for African-American young men.”
Statesboro businessman Jonathan McCollar challenged those gathered at the courthouse to not reject the system he said tends to work against them, but to become part of it. Instead of clinging to a victim mentality, he said, people who feel oppressed by the system need to get educated, register to vote and put themselves in the positions of power.
“The key part of this is that we continue to say that we’re victims of a system, but the true part is that we are the group that’s most reluctant to take part of the system,” McCollar said. “See, we teach our children at home, ‘Don’t trust the police, don’t trust the judge, don’t trust the lawyers.’ While other people are saying, ‘No, son, you be the judge, you be the lawyer, you be the police officer. You can’t win the game if you don’t play the game.”
Georgia Southern students read poems inspired by Martin’s death. Spiritual songs, including “Take Me to the King” and “We Shall Overcome,” were sung.
Perhaps the most impassioned remarks came from Statesboro lawyer Francys Johnson. Like other speakers, he cited the statement made by President Barack Obama on Friday. In part, the president said: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” and, “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences that doesn’t go away.”
Johnson then proceeded to make statements he said Obama could not make in his position as president.
“I do not respect the system,” Johnson said. “I do not respect the jury’s verdict.”
He echoed McCollar’s call for those gathered to participate in the system and fix it.
Every 28 hours, Johnson said, an African-American male is shot down in the street -- sometimes by another black man, sometimes by a law enforcement officer, sometimes by someone “they know very closely.”
“We will not let folks distort the real issue,” he said. “The real issue is, we need laws that protect and not incite folks to shoot and kill as a matter of defense. We will not let folks make this about a black or white issue. This is a red, white and blue issue.
“Self-defense is as old as humankind,” he continued. “We don’t need laws that encourage people to put guns in their hands and shoot if they cannot fight and kill because they are prejudiced and biased.”
Johnson concluded: “George Zimmerman is not the enemy. White America is not the enemy. The enemy is anything that stands between freedom and freedom’s people. And for those who know freedom, for those who love freedom, we will not rest until it comes.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.