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After 'Justice for Trayvon' rallies, protesters defend Zimmerman
HOUSTON — Dueling marches here Sunday in support of and in opposition to the verdict in the George Zimmerman case led to a massive police deployment, heated face-offs but no violence, police said.
For many, the protests showed that although the controversial court case may be over, the debates it sparked concerning racial profiling and “stand your ground” self-defense laws have only grown, leading to demonstrations this weekend in more than 100 cities in support of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted this month by a Florida jury in the fatal shooting of Martin on Feb. 26, 2012. A Justice Department inquiry into the case is still underway.
Unlike in other cities, Sunday’s protest here drew several hundred Zimmerman supporters who, though far outnumbered, were outspoken and determined to be seen.
They organized after Houston-based New Black Panther activist Quanell X announced plans to march through the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood to protest the verdict in the Zimmerman case. Their opposition group formed first on Facebook, G. Zimmerman River Oaks Stand Your Ground, then gathered at a small park near the site of the demonstration, the River Oaks gateway.
“Everyone here, their belief is this is an issue of the right to keep and bear arms and the right to self-defense,” said Carl Haggard, 65, a Houston lawyer who helped organize the group.
A police officer debriefed the demonstrators before they left for the protest, warning them that there would be “an immense police presence” and that both sides were being monitored.
Scott Harmon, 50, a project manager from Houston, said he attended because he was dissatisfied with how President Obama has responded to the case, calling his statements in support of Martin “deplorable.”
“He’s supposed to be a president who unites us instead of dividing us,” Harmon said.
Some of their homemade signs said, “Zimmerman is as white as Obama” and “Americans against the New Black Panther Party.”
The demonstrators began their protest praying for Zimmerman and Martin. Then the group, which was mostly white, marched to the River Oaks Shopping Center, hoisted their signs near a Starbucks and Barnes & Noble and waited for their opponents to arrive as more than 100 police circled — on bicycles and horseback and in plainclothes.
Scott Shirley, 32, of Houston said he thought there had not been more protests in support of Zimmerman because people were scared to come forward, afraid of being attacked. But he felt secure, he said, because Texas is a conservative, gun-friendly state, and Houston deployed plenty of officers.
“In Texas, we will stand our ground,” Shirley said. “We’re not out here promoting violence.”
He and other pro-Zimmerman protesters said that they resented Quanell X’s decision to march through a residential neighborhood, and that they came to ensure it was peaceful.
Jeffrey Williams, 45, was one of the few black protesters on the Zimmerman side.
“I’m tired of this country being separated by race,” said Williams, a chef and gun owner who wore his National Rifle Assn. hat. “It’s separating the whole country. It’s not about black and white; it’s about wrong and right.”
When the Martin supporters finally passed about 5 p.m., they far outnumbered the Zimmerman supporters — several thousand people, many toting signs such as “Justice for Trayvon” and “It’s called neighborhood watch, you don’t need a gun to watch.”
When they reached the River Oaks gate, both sides started chanting.
“USA!” the Zimmerman supporters shouted, and, “Go home, racists!”
“No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!” the others responded.
Both sides marched into River Oaks, past well-tended hedges, stately white-columned homes with Lexuses in the driveways. Some residents peered out from behind gates, sipped red wine and snapped photos.
“It’s all about imaging. It’s not about Trayvon. Why would you pick a neighborhood that has nothing to do with that?” said Josh Perrella, 32, who lives in the area and works in the oil and gas business, noting the neighborhood has become diverse.
Roberto and Irma Gonzalez stood in front of their home down the street, where they have lived for 20 years, snapping photos. The couple, who run a staffing business, said they had never seen such a protest on their street.
“It’s a good way of letting people express how they feel,” she said.
“We understand,” he said, “River Oaks is a longtime symbol of wealth in Houston and very intimidating to minorities.”
Irma Diaz-Gonzalez said she was a bit surprised to see so many pro-Zimmerman protesters.
“They should be happy; they won,” she said.
Her husband shook his head.
“Nobody wins in this case,” he said.