About 500 Wichitans gathered Friday for a march to protest the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida — and to call for repeal of a Kansas “stand your ground” law that is apparently more permissive of violence than the Florida statute that has shielded the shooter there from arrest.
The hastily organized protest started with about 250 people, with hundreds more driving by honking in support. Many of those passers-by parked and joined the demonstration, which began at the corner of 21st and Hillside and marched twice back and forth to a nearby Wichita police substation.
The march coincided with demonstrations across the country — some reaching the tens of thousands — protesting the shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17.
President Obama said the shooting should prompt Americans to “do some soul-searching.” Personalizing the incident, the president said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Trayvon was shot Feb. 26 while walking home from a convenience store in the gated community of Sanford, Fla. Trayvon, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a light rain, had been watching the NBA All-Star game and walked to the store to buy iced tea and Skittles candies.
The local neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, 28, spotted Trayvon and called 911 to report him as a suspicious person. Ignoring a dispatcher’s advice not to pursue, Zimmerman left his car and followed Trayvon on foot, leading to the confrontation where the teen was shot to death.
Trayvon’s girlfriend has said she was on the phone with him until moments before his death and that he was scared that Zimmerman was following him. Police emergency tapes recorded someone screaming for help just before a gunshot, and what may have been a muttered racial slur by Zimmerman.
An attorney for Zimmerman said that his client is not racist and that the facts will show he acted in self-defense. Orlando criminal defense attorney Craig Sonner said Friday on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that he has advised Zimmerman to cooperate in the investigation. Zimmerman told Sanford police that he shot Martin after a fight.
The controversy went national because Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman or confiscate his weapon, saying he was shielded by Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which authorizes private citizens to use deadly force if they feel threatened with attack.
The Sanford police chief, who defended the decision not to arrest Zimmerman, has temporarily stepped down pending further investigation by state and federal authorities.
Many of the demonstrators in Wichita and elsewhere have joined in protest in what is being loosely termed the “Million Hoodie March,” a reference to the apparel item — a hooded sweatshirt — that appeared to have raised Zimmerman’s suspicions.
Marchers also waved cans of iced tea and bags of Skittles amid alternating chants of “I am Trayvon’s mother” and “I am Trayvon’s father.”
Treva Smith, marketing director for a home-health-care company, took time off from work to hold a sign reading “I love Skittles, iced tea and I’m black. Am I next?”
She said she came to the march in support of Trayvon’s family.
“I don’t think justice has been served and I don’t think it’s going to be served,” she said.
Parrishon Marshall said the law has clearly failed.
“Kim Kardashian, they arrested someone for throwing flour on her, but nobody’s been arrested in this shooting,” she said.
While the marchers were predominantly African-American, a substantial number of white people also joined the protest.
Among them were the Rev. Gary Blaine, pastor of the Hearth, a Congregational church.
“Shoot first and ask questions later is part of the DNA of western society,” he said. “When you get those two things, racism and violence, wrapped together, it’s truly deadly.”
Mary Dean, a leader of the group Kansas Justice Advocates, said she was surprised by the turnout since she’d had only one day to get the word out.
“I really wasn’t expecting this big of a crowd,” she said. “People are really passionate about this issue.”
She carried a sign calling for the repeal of the stand-your-ground law.
“You can be walking with a hoodie and someone thinks you look suspicious and you can be shot? It’s scary,” she said.
Wichita legislators denounce stand-your-ground law
Two Democratic state legislators from Wichita, Rep. Melody McCray-Miller and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, participated in the march and shared Dean’s disdain for the stand-your-ground law.
McCray-Miller said she opposed the law when the Legislature passed it and would like to see it repealed before Kansas has an incident like the one in Florida.
She said it’s a bad situation “when you have allowed vigilantes to walk around and carry and shoot an unarmed youth.”
She said part of the problem is that the Republican-dominated Legislature is fixated on the Second Amendment.
“The only issue we talk about is the right to bear arms,” she said. “Well, there’s also a right to safety — and justice.”
Two other lawmakers, one who voted for stand-your-ground and one who voted against it, said in telephone interviews that they think the law might need a second look to prevent tragedies like the Florida case.
“I don’t believe it would be hurtful to have some hearings on it,” said Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, who supported the law. “It gets a lot of information out that would not get out otherwise.”
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a former prosecutor, said details of the Florida case are still unclear and he would like to see what happens there before considering alterations to Kansas law.
“We should let the Florida thing pan out and next year look at our laws and see if there need to be some changes,” he said.
Kansas law modeled on Florida’s
While the Kansas law is modeled on the Florida statute and uses much of the same language, a legal analysis by a former University of Kansas law student indicates that it could be more permissive than the Florida law.
The analysis determined that the Florida law contains a standard of reasonableness for use of force that Kansas law lacks.
Annie Wells Shank, now a lawyer in Dallas, said she researched the two laws for an article published in 2008 in the KU Law Review.
Her article cited a Florida case in which a man named Norman Borden fired five shots through the windshield at three men who were planning to attack him, then circled to the driver’s door and fired nine more shots, killing two of the men.
Prosecutors decided the first five shots were self-defense, but put him on trial alleging that the following nine were excessive force. Borden was acquitted at trial.
“Kansas’ stand-your-ground law is similar to Florida’s in several ways, but it does not include a reasonableness requirement, and it does not expressly provide for — or limit — the use of deadly force,” Shank concluded. “If the events of the Borden case had occurred in Kansas, it is possible that Borden may not even have been tried for his actions. … Rather, Borden may have been protected by the new stand-your-ground law, which allows a person to ‘meet force with force’ when ‘attacked’ in any place where he ‘has a right to be.’ ”
“God, we’re going backwards,” Faust-Goudeau commented upon learning of the KU article. “Maybe we should look at repealing that law or modifying it so that (an incident like) the Trayvon Martin shooting” doesn’t occur in the state of Kansas.
A forum organized in opposition to the stand-your-ground law is scheduled from 10-11:30 a.m. on March 31 at the New Day Christian Church, 522 E. Elm, Wichita.
Contributing: Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers