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It was not the promised presence of people wearing hoods that first got our attention at tonight’s rally, but the Skittles.
We were a bit skeptical when we arrived at the Trayvon Martin rally in Union Square and saw a hollering woman tossing bags of Skittles out at the audience. People were grabbing them like giveaways in what initially looked like the world’s most inappropriate viral marketing campaign.
We had forgotten, however, that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had gone to a nearby store for a bag of Skittles and an AriZona iced tea before he was shot by George Zimmerman. Many protestors in Union Square were pointing out: “That’s all he was armed with.”
Still, even as a political act, watching people devour the Skittles was disorienting. The effect was more powerful when people held up the snacks rather than consuming them.
The protest started out mildly enough, with 300-400 people at the announced time of the of protest’s beginning. Chaotic sounds brought unity to the rally, including Occupy Wall Street style mic-checks and a bullhorn that was difficult to hear over the 14th Street traffic.
It was an unusual and exciting crowd for an event that was hyped by OWS and more traditionally black political groups alike. Part uptown, part downtown, the crowd started out more like one you’d see in the Bronx or Harlem than in Union Square, with protestors of all ages. Numerous mothers had their kids holding pictures and signs of Trayvon, with the minority tots asking: “Am I Next?”
Council member Jumaane Williams took the stage, reminiscing about his experiences being improperly arrested last Labor Day and talking about Ramarley Graham at the hands of the NYPD. Williams laid the blame for the NYPD not at the feet of rank and file cops, but at Mayor Bloomberg, whom Williams accused of showing no leadership over a department he thinks has gone out of control.
The Martin family attorney got the crowd angriest when he said that George Zimmerman had no drug, alcohol, or background tests done on him before he was allowed to leave the scene of the murder, but that Trayvon had all of those performed on him posthumously.
Despite a handful of skirmishes (and a call from a protestor that a Sanford, Florida official ought to be “executed” for not arresting George Zimmerman), the crowd was restless but passive in trying to hear for most of the event. It was when Martin’s father and mother spoke — his mother crying — that the crowd grew quietest.
“My heart is pain,” Trayvon’s mom said through tears. “Our son was not committing any crime. Our son was your son.”
“This isn’t a black and white thing,” she implored. “This is a right or wrong thing.”
The crowd swelled to thousands and amplified its calls for justice as it spilled into 14th Street and began a march, occupying the west bound lanes and then the whole street. The crowd of New Yorkers –still majority black — was also a huge mix of young and old, black and white, traditional OWS protestors and those who seemed to be at such a march for the first time. Many were teenagers.
The march turned right onto Sixth Avenue and swelled further. There was a definite stomp crew rhythm to the protests, especially in terms of the drums and the chanting, giving it a very different vibe than most of the OWS protests we’ve covered in the past six months.
The march turned right at 22nd Street when a portable projection began illuminating building walls with “I am Trayvon Martin.” Joined by a flank that seemed to come out of nowhere, the march turned south at Broadway and headed back towards Union Square.
A couple dozen NYPD vehicles headed to the park once the marchers had thinned out at the north side of Union Square. Shortly after, a small contingent of marchers — maybe 300 or 400 — left Union Square and headed up Broadway, seemingly without a permit or any police presence clearing the street for them.