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No Justice, No Peace

People were gathered in a circle, dripping like popsicles in various states of undress, as the delicious yellow sun set along the grid. It was an eclectic crowd, as is to be expected at mass protests and at Union Square in general, where the drum circles and break dancers and Hare Krishna chanters rarely attract undue amounts of attention. People hoisted up signs reading slogans like, "I AM TREYVON MARTIN," "AMERICA DOESN'T CARE ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE," and even, "VINCENT CHIN, WHY LET HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?"

"We forget to love our neighbors. I'm not even going to front, I do it too," a small woman wearing a hat with an upturned brim was saying from the center of the circle. Her limbs seemed to fail to keep up with the movement in her eyes. She was scared, she said, for her dark-skinned brother. She was saddened that her bright friend could not get financial aid to go to med school. She did not want to reproduce in a country like this, she said. "We need to get uncomfortable," she lamented. A man near the inner edge of the circle wearing multiple Che Guevara pins echoed her like a one-man choir.

A tall man entered the crowd to speak, and the crowd issued a ripple of "Mic check!" when he appeared to whisper. Someone handed a megaphone to the baritone. He read quotes from a small holy book in a placid, sleepy tone. To the crowd's dismay, his quotes failed to reverberate even when amplified. He was drowned out by a chant of "NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!" The sun had set, the green Whole Foods sign was lit up, and a double-decker bus drove by with wide-eyed tourists aiming their cameras at the crowd from the top deck. The chant died down, and a woman standing next to me said, "I still want peace, though."

A woman named MJ entered the circle, and said that she had lost a brother to a policeman's bullet 10 years prior. A few people teared at this. A third woman took the megaphone to say she was angry. She was black, and a woman, and angry, and in this country, in 2013, this is not acceptable. "Well, FUCK that!" she shouted.

Finally, an eager man in a blue bandana pushed through the crowd to get to the megaphone. When his turn came, he reached into his pocket and read from a sheet of lined notebook paper. He read the names of 33 US states. "Texas!" was the first one. States that had instated Stand Your Ground Laws. Such a law in Florida permitted neighborhood watch patrol George Zimmerman to kill 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in an act of self-defense as the boy walked back to a friend's house after buying Skittles.

"Thank you for research!" Someone in the crowd shouted. The man in the blue bandana retreated back as people tittered and waited for the next speaker. A woman named Anita took to the concrete stage. "Advocates for peace don't carry guns," she said. "Jesus didn't carry no gun!" A woman in the crowd turned to her friend and said of Zimmerman, "He's gonna be just like OJ. He's gonna get his ass blacked up."

I left the crowd and caught up with the man in the blue bandana. He was a street artist who had made several chalk creations now displayed in the square. The drawings were body outlines with smashed Skittles coming out of the head. The candy that had become a symbol of the boy's innocence, of his fateful snack run, contrasted all too well with the violence of his death. The artist wasn't heavily involved in the protest, or social issues in general, for that matter. He wasn't black, and he wasn't particularly angry. He wore a shirt with Trayvon's likeness on the back.

Rallies and protests are bound to attract oddballs, onlookers, and drifters. This protest was no different. After the not-guilty verdict was handed to Zimmerman on Saturday night, protests erupted all over the country. To the crowds, the legal details of the case were insignificant. To an extent, the wishes and the intentions of the individual people involved were insignificant. To the crowds, the legal system's failure to convict Zimmerman and bring justice to Trayvon are endemic of the larger failures of public safety and of education. The larger failures to acknowledge and eliminate racism.

And so the crowd was moved and it was moving. It was growing and it was undulating, and it was singing "We Shall Overcome." Its body was plastered with the images of the same face in the same hoodie over and over again. The candy and the gunshot are guaranteed to be the only things that remain of Trayvon Martin himself. In this way, the crowd lifts him, and it drops him.

Jul 15, 2013