Atlantans join protest over Trayvon Martin killing

Cathy Karim recently came home to find her son and a friend doing something many mothers fear: talking outside in evening hours, wearing sweatshirts with hoods pulled up.

"I explained to them that they are black, and they shouldn't be outside with hoods up," said Karim, of Ellenwood. "I said, ‘It makes you look like a suspect.'"

She recalled that encounter Thursday morning at a service commemorating Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, hoodie-wearing black teen shot to death by a neighbor in Florida last month. More than 100 people attended the 5:30 a.m. service at Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church. Afterward, many boarded buses for the 8-hour ride to an evening rally in Sanford, Fla., the community thrust into the national spotlight by Martin's killing. And several hundred people turned out to a Thursday night rally in southwest Atlanta, bearing signs and symbols of support for a teen who has become the face of a modern Civil Rights movement.

The 17-year-old was shot on the evening of Feb. 26. He was returning to the home of his father's girlfriend from a nearby convenience store, where he had bought iced tea and Skittles.

Corliss Burnett said his death struck her to the core because the circumstances were so ordinary. "It just really puts in your face that it happened to this child, so it could happen to your child," she said.

As protests over the killing swelled across the country in recent days, hoodies and Skittles have emerged as symbols of activism. Many at Atlanta's events brought the candy and wore sweatshirts that read, "My hoodie does not mean I'm a criminal."

"That baby was crying for help," said former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, referring to cries heard on 911 tapes of calls neighbors placed during the confrontation between Martin and the man who shot him, George Zimmerman. "From Atlanta, from First Iconium Baptist Church, help is on the way," said Boazman, who coordinated the trip to Florida.

Zimmerman -- who told police he acted in self defense although he was armed and Martin was not -- has not been charged with a crime.

"Trayvon is an episode in a series of injustices," said Marcus Coleman, president of the National Action Network Atlanta, which hosted the Thursday night at Providence Missionary Baptist Church.

Martin's killing has drawn comparisons to such infamous cases as the murder of Emmett Till, who was slain in Mississippi in the 1950s after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Thursday, others spoke of Ariston Waiters, who was shot twice in the back by a Union City police officer in December. No one has been charged in his death, and the Waiters family contests police statements that their son was shot after a struggle for the officer's weapon.

"You'd think by now things like this would not happen in this country," said Pastor Michael Harris, head of the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, before the evening rally. "To a certain degree, it reminds us we have not overcome. America has a painful way of reminding us of who we are."

Mothers attending the early morning event spoke of the rules they try to teach their children about living as blacks in America. Among them: Always have your driver's license, registration and car insurance information on-hand. Wearing a suit is safer than wearing casual clothes. Don't run down a street. Never run from police.

"It's something we blacks have always lived with ... our children always have to be on guard," said Burnett, of Lithonia. She said she first taught her son about these issues when he was a boy. He is 38 now, "and he still goes by the rules."

Beverly Dumas drove from Henry County to Atlanta well before dawn Thursday because “to just complain and feel bad isn’t enough.”

“This is my son, he’s my grandson. He’s my brother, my nephew, my uncle, my fiance,” she said. “There are still people who fear African-Americans … it’s real and it’s not going away as much as we want to ignore it or shy away from the subject.”

Robert Blackman, who is 72, said he was saddened, but not shocked by Martin's death.

“Nothing surprises me at this age,” said Blackman, of Stone Mountain. “It just doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

At Thursday night's rally in Southwest Atlanta, a host of speakers criticized not only Martin’s killing but also the police’s handling of the young man’s death. Organizers urged supporters to call the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division about the case and to sign a petition on demanding prosecution of Zimmerman.

Pastor Gerald Durley, head of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church, said the slaying is not just about racism in America: "It is about right and wrong."