By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)
Local officials and civil rights leaders brought home the acquittal of George Zimmerman on Saturday, using the controversial verdict as a spark for a citywide discussion about race relations.
“Some say Alexandria doesn’t have the same issues,” said Mayor Bill Euille at the weekend forum on the verdict. “But the reality is Alexandria has a historical perspective where we address the challenges that we are confronted with. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much more progress to make in human and race relations.”
Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., while walking home from a convenience store in February 2012. Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the case and was found not guilty July 13 of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
While Alexandria is known for its diversity, local leaders urged attendees to recognize the role racism has played and continues to play in this country.
“Race is an inextricable part of the fabric of America, and the worst thing we can do is pretend that it doesn’t matter anymore,” said Howard-John Wesley, the pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town. “Someone was killed, and no one was held accountable.”
T.C. Williams grad Delonte Artis said the verdict was a harsh reminder to young black men that racial profiling remains prevalent.
“I just thought, ‘It could have been me,’” Artis said. “I thought it when Julian Dawkins was killed. I’m young, I’m black and I’ve got [dreadlocks]. I look suspicious.”
Alexis Stackhouse — a member of the Alexandria chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, criminal defense attorney and prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force — said the case should prompt the city to pursue greater diversity within the Commonwealth’s Attorney office.
“If [the Zimmerman prosecutors] had someone black on the team, they could have prepped [star witness Rachel Jeantel] much better,” Stackhouse said. “… [The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office] has a lot of younger Caucasian males and females, so they don’t have the broadest worldview. If we had a little bit more diversity, it could be more effective.”
Other leaders hope that the verdict will rally opponents of laws like Stand Your Ground — the provision in Florida that allows for deadly force if a person fears for their safety — to prevent any efforts of bringing the law to Virginia.
“The Stand Your Ground law is questionably constitutional, as we all have an inherent right to life,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). “[There] have been efforts to apply it in Virginia, and we should be prepared for more in the future.”
LaDonna Sanders, president of the Alexandria branch of the NAACP, said the community must continue discussing how race influences everybody’s lives, particularly with young people.
“We’re working to set up an information session to teach the youth how to respond if they come in contact with police,” Sanders said. “They need to know what their rights are.”