NEW YORK — With chants and prayers, sermons and signs, outrage over a jury’s decision to clear George Zimmerman in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager poured from street protests and church pulpits Sunday amid calls for federal civil rights charges to be filed in the case.
Demonstrations large and small broke out across the country – ranging from a few dozen more than a thousand – in support of the family of Trayvon Martin as protesters decried the verdict as a miscarriage of justice.
The NAACP and protesters called for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who was acquitted Saturday in Martin’s 2012 shooting death.
The Justice Department said it is looking into the case to determine whether federal prosecutors should file criminal civil rights charges.
President Obama and religious and civil rights leaders urged calm in hopes of ensuring peaceful demonstrations.
“I know this case has elicited strong passions,” Obama said. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
In New York City, hundreds marched into Times Square on Sunday night, zigzagging through Manhattan streets to avoid police lines. Sign-carrying marchers thronged the busy intersection, chanting “Justice for Trayvon Martin!” as they made their way from Union Square.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles – where an earlier protest was dispersed with beanbag rounds – police closed streets as protesters marched to condemn Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Rand Powdrill, 41, said he came to the San Francisco march of about 400 others to “protest the execution of an innocent black teenager.”
“If our voices can’t be heard, then this is just going to keep going on,” he said.
At Manhattan’s Middle Collegiate Church, many congregants wore hooded sweatshirts – the same thing Martin was wearing the night he was shot – in a show of solidarity. Hoodie-clad Jessica Nacinovich said she could only feel disappointment and sadness over the verdict.
“I’m sure jurors did what they felt was right in accordance with the law, but maybe the law is wrong, maybe society is wrong; there’s a lot that needs fixing,” she said.
In Sanford, Fla., where the trial was held, teens wearing shirts displaying Martin’s picture wiped away tears during a sermon at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.
About 200 people turned out for a rally and march in downtown Chicago, saying the verdict was symbolic of lingering racism in the United States. Maya Miller, 73, said the case reminded her of the 1955 slaying of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was killed by a group of white men while visiting Mississippi. His death galvanized the civil rights movement.
“Fifty-eight years and nothing’s changed,” Miller said, pausing to join a chant to “Justice for Trayvon, not one more.”
In Miami, more than 200 people gathered for a vigil. “You can’t justify murder,” read one poster. Another read “Don’t worry about more riots. Worry about more Zimmermans.”
In Philadelphia, about 700 protesters marched to the Liberty Bell, alternating between chanting Trayvon Martin’s name and “No justice, no peace.”
Some tempered their anger, saying they didn’t contest the jury’s decision based on the legal issues involved. But “while the verdict may be legal, a system that doesn’t take into account what happened is a broken legal system,” said Jennifer Lue, 24, who came to New York’s Union Square.
Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, urged peace in the wake of the verdict. Jackson said the legal system “failed justice,” but violence isn’t the answer.
But not all the protesters heeded those calls in the demonstrations that broke out immediately after the verdict.
In Oakland, Calif., some angry demonstrators broke windows, burned U.S. flags and started street fires. Some marchers also vandalized a police squad car and used spray paint to scrawl anti-police graffiti on roads and Alameda County’s Davidson courthouse. In Los Angeles, police said a crowd of about 100 protesters surrounded an officer and eventually had to be dispersed by officers firing beanbag rounds.