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August 1, 2015

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Zimmerman acquittal sparks frustration, discourse about racial issues during community forum

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Steve Marcus

Darnell Williams bows his head for an opening prayer during a town hall discussion at the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The discussion, titled After Trayvon Martin: What Now?, attracted more than 200 people. The Phi Beta Sigma fraternity sponsored the event.

After Trayvon Martin: Town Hall Discussion

Eddie E. poses with a Trayvon Martin T-shirt before a town hall discussion at the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The discussion, titled After Trayvon Martin: What Now?, attracted more than 200 people. The Phi Beta Sigma fraternity sponsored the event. Launch slideshow »

George Zimmerman Trial

George Zimmerman, left, stands with defense counsel Mark O'Mara during closing arguments in his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Fla., July 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Louis Isaiah Thomas walked to the microphone wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and clutching a Watermelon Arizona Iced Tea in his hand.

The 23-year-old North Las Vegas resident wears hoodies all the time — especially for long walks outside — but on Wednesday, he wore it to make a statement. With the hood up, he addressed the waiting audience staring back at him inside the Pearson Community Center.

“I am Trayvon Martin,” Thomas said.

Thomas stood at the microphone seeking justice in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial. The answer, he suggested, would be found in ending violence within the black community.

“How can we expect justice if we don’t want justice ourselves?” Thomas said.

He was one of dozens of community members who spoke during a community discussion about Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of 17-year-old Martin. Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in a February 2012 confrontation. Zimmerman, 29, who claimed self-defense, was acquitted last week of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

The event, which was hosted by Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., offered residents a forum to talk about the racial issues raised in the case, the verdict and solutions for the future.

“We want people to get involved, to exercise their rights to vote, exercise their rights to serve on a jury,” said Mark Armstrong, vice president of Phi Beta Sigma. “We want them to understand in terms of what happened as far as the process … and what they need to do as far as, I’m a black American male, we have a lot of black American males who could be in the same situation.”

More than 200 community members attended the event, which involved comments from the community and a panel discussion. Assemblywoman Dina Neal and state Sen. Aaron Ford highlighted a panel that also included Pastor Robert Fowler, Metro Police Lt. William Scott and others.

The panelists touched on everything from the verdict to racial profiling and solutions for the future. Each panelist expressed a mixture of frustration and dismay at the verdict. Ford said he felt goosebumps as he described the fear and doubts his son had about justice. He added that he won’t let his children wear braids or allow their pants to sag out of fear of racial profiling.

Fowler said the verdict in the trial was a reminder that the battle for racial equality is not over.

“It amazes me that people could still say that race had nothing to do with this,” Fowler said. “You would have to be living in another planet to say race had nothing to do with this.”

Others in the crowd echoed those sentiments. One man said he was upset that a young black kid’s life was taken away all because of how he looked. A 16-year-old boy couldn’t understand how Zimmerman was not guilty.

“It was disheartening,” Craig Knight said. “We listened to everyone say, ‘Let the justice system play out and it will work.’ I believe it does work, but it’s also a disadvantage at the same time.”

To prevent another situation similar to the Martin case, panelists and community members suggested there needed to be more involvement. Ford and Neal both said they would be looking at racial profiling legislation and the “stand your ground law” to determine if there are any similarities to Florida.

Outside of the law, Ford said parents need to show love to their children so they know they are valued members of society. Other solutions included the need for more voting, education and dialogue with local law enforcement. Hartwell said people need to be more open to teenagers, as well.

“Our society is also scared of teens because they’re seen as rebellious,” Hartwell said. “People need to open up and get to know them. They need to be race-friendly and diverse in age, as well.”

Neal said the event provided a good starting point for the future. People were frustrated, and the forum provided an outlet to find productive solutions.

“We need to put more solutions on the table,” Neal said. “I know when the African-American-elects have their meeting in the next two weeks … we’re going to focus a lot on the judicial system itself, gun laws and deal with what some of the community strategies are that we need to put in to protect communities. ”

For Thomas, the event offered hope that justice will come.

“It lets me know that it echoes everywhere,” Thomas said. “If we have it here … I’m sure they’re doing it somewhere else. … If you want justice, get off your (butt) and demand it. We asked for it, we ain’t got it, now we demand it.”

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