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A controversial and well-publicized verdict in a case decided in Florida has sparked protest right here in Charles County.

On July 13, a jury found Sanford, Fla., resident George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who maintains that the shooting occurred in self-defense, said he thought Martin was behaving suspiciously and so pursued him, even after a police dispatcher told him to wait for officers. The two fought, and Martin was shot dead in the struggle.

In the wake of the shooting last year, the Rev. Thirkel Freeman, pastor of True Gospel Church Ministry in Waldorf, organized a rally in memory of Martin that he said drew about 100 people. In the wake of this most recent development, Freeman said, the church is planning two prayer vigils to be held Friday at the church, along with a rally in the parking lot of St. Charles Towne Center on Saturday.

“We want to be the church visible in the community. We don’t want to be just a Sunday church ... and that’s why we’re taking the lead on this,” Freeman said.

Freeman is a native of Sanford. As such, and as the father of a young son, Freeman said he cannot help but feel a personal connection with Martin and his family.

“The slogan last year, ‘I am Trayvon Martin,’ that’s indicative of a personal connection. You make yourself him,” Freeman said. “It could’ve been anyone. I’m so passionate I cry about this. I never met Trayvon or his parents ... but it pulls at the heartstrings to know in ... America today, this has no business happening. We teach our kids to do everything right ... and he did it right and he lost his life. It touches me to know in 2013 we’re dealing with an issue of this sort. It brings shame.”

Freeman equated attending the rally, which will be held in conjunction with 100 others across the country through the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, to casting one’s vote.

“It’s coming out to make your vote count in terms of the injustice you feel,” Freeman said. “This is not a black thing or a white thing. It’s a right thing. We are a community not oblivious to what’s going on.”

Anthony B. Covington, the state’s attorney for Charles County and a speaker at last year’s rally, said he sees the Martin case as “emblematic of the stereotypes that we still have.”

“It’s wrongheaded thinking. ... Quite frankly, it’s an outrage,” Covington (D) said. “This young man gets accosted by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman who ... instigated the contact they had, and to me, the young man responded however he did. However the fistfight began, [Zimmerman] took it to deadly force and took a child from this planet. The biggest outrage is he isn’t being held criminally accountable. It’s wrong, it’s not fair, and in my personal opinion, it’s just not justice.”

Covington said he feels the aforementioned societal problems often go unaddressed.

“People want to blind themselves from it ... but we still have vestiges lingering from the past,” Covington said. “That’s the discussion we need to have, and we need to address these laws that make it easier and easier to do wrong and get away with it. That’s what we need to fix.”

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), another speaker at last year’s rally, said he was not shocked at the verdict in the case, given the “stand your ground” and conceal and carry laws in Florida.

“But it’s always a tragedy when someone loses a life. I hope they take the energy here and use it positively,” Wilson said. “It’s a shame he was shot for his appearance. But as I tell my daughters that a woman should be able to dress how she wants and not get harassed, that’s not always the case. People get judged by how they dress, how they look. I want to see people go beyond just one rally here.”

Wilson said that protesting the loss of life is not enough when tragedy can be found right here in the county and not just in Florida, citing the shooting death last March of a La Plata man, Martin Hawkins, 32, whose killer has not yet been identified.

“I hope that this is a chance, a reminder that a lot of people need help. Otherwise, it’s a waste,” Wilson said. “We talk for a minute and then we forget. They talk about it. ... But what are they going to do? Complain? That doesn’t do anything. I don’t want people to lose sight of the issues. I hope people take the time to do something different. I want our community to use this not to get angry, but to get busy.”

Even if Zimmerman had been found guilty, Wilson said, nothing would have changed.

“A guilty verdict doesn’t bring back a loved one. In my own time as a prosecutor, I’ve heard that all too many times from families after the verdict is read,” Wilson said. “This is beyond anger, beyond pain, beyond disappointment. I hope this is the beginning of something new for our community ... the catalyst for a positive time.”

Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that when the verdict was announced, “I couldn’t believe my ears.”

“I just want to say what a tragedy it is for any parent to lose a child,” Janice Wilson said, adding that her only son died six years ago of natural causes. “I know that sadness. To lose a child ... walking home from the store is totally shocking.”

Janice Wilson said Martin’s death is evidence that African-Americans are still widely discriminated against.

“It just seems that we are miles apart. Although I think we’ve made progress in race relations, we still have a long way to go and this trial brought that up,” she said. “He was targeted, he was profiled. ... I have a real hard time trying to get my head around why, and I think profiling happens in our community, too.”

Earlier this year, Janice Wilson said she learned during a meeting that African-American students in Charles County schools are three times more likely to get arrested in school than their white peers, an issue she said she worked with the Tri-County Youth Services Bureau to address.

“My concern is that African-Americans are seen as suspect everywhere they go from a young age all across society,” Janice Wilson said. “I don’t think African-Americans are seen as equal. I think we need a conversation on race in Charles County. We’ve got to do something. It’s not good for society. Everyone has something good to offer, and we need to talk about the positive things more because people like to focus on the negative.”



If you go

True Gospel Church Ministry will hold two prayer vigils and a rally in memory of Trayvon Martin.

The prayer vigils will be noon-2 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. Friday at the church, 132 Smallwood Village Center, Waldorf. The rally will be noon-2 p.m. Saturday in the parking lot of St. Charles Towne Center.

Call the Rev. Thirkel Freeman at 301-653-4404.



lrenner@somdnews.com