Thousands Protest the Racist Murder of Trayvon Martin at NYC's 'Million Hoodie March'

Participants stressed that while they were there for Trayvon Martin, the problem went far beyond him, to a culture in which young Black men are assumed to be dangerous.

Last night, thousands of individuals packed into New York's Union Square before taking the streets for the Million Hoodies March. They came to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old boy who was murdered in Sanford, Florida, after buying some Skittles and iced tea. His confessed murderer, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, cried self-defense, and the police did not charge him. But recently released 9/11 calls and testimony from Martin's friend, to whom he was speaking moments before his death, make it clear that Zimmerman was on the prowl before he fatally shot Trayvon.

Police, however, seemed to have little interest in investigating the death of a young, Black male. Cops even called Trayvon Martin's body a John Doe. Combating the racism exhibited by both Zimmerman and the Sanford Police Department, the message last night was not that Martin is just another dead Black kid -- it was that "Trayvon Martin matters. You matter." Moreover, it was that justice is universal. "No justice, no peace," they said. "What if Martin had been white?" Demonstrators demanded Zimmerman be prosecuted and called for a cultural revolution to create a society where being Black in a hoodie doesn't get people murdered, by citizens or police.

"I reek of Brooklyn," said City Councilman Jumaane Williams from the stage, a gray hood over his long dreads. "I'm not a criminal. I'm a New York City Councilman."

"My blood is not cheap. We want justice -- just like you want justice when police fall, we want justice when we fall," said Williams, who has been an outspoken critic of New York's racist stop-and -frisk policing tactic.

"I don't play the race card," Williams said, "it's always given to me."

Williams, like other participants, stressed that while they were there for Trayvon Martin, the problem went far beyond him. Ours is a deadly culture, they said, in which young Black men are assumed to be dangerous.

"The mayor and commissioner of this city have provided no leadership," said Williams, adding that they have instead "provided a culture that, at a minimum, allowed me to be arrested on Labor Day, and Ramarley Graham shot." Just eighteen years old when NYPD officers busted down his door without a warrant, Graham was shot and killed in the bathroom of his apartment, while his grandmother and six-year-old brother were inside. He, too, was wearing a hoodie, and his name was echoed throughout the night.

As the Martins' lawyer Benjamin Crump took the stage, he explained that Zimmerman's accusations (that Martin was on drugs and "up to no good") were racial stereotypes. Perhaps more disturbing is that the police believed him. Crump reiterated that no drug, alcohol, or background tests were conducted on George Zimmerman before he was allowed to walk away without a murder charge. Martin, however, was tested for substances posthumously. Even in death, he was suspicious.

"I am Trayvon Martin!" the crowd chanted repeatedly, echoing rallying cries following Troy Davis' execution.

The most emotional part of the evening, however, was when Martin's parents took the stage. For so many women in the crowd that night, the march was about showing support for the Martins, and ensuring the safety of their own children.

"We're not going to stop until we get justice," said Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, "My son did not deserve to die."

"Trayvon was just a typical teenager," he said, "Trayvon was not a bad person."

Martin said that while nothing can bring his son back, he can work to ensure that justice is served and that no other parents have to suffer like he has.

"My heart is in pain," Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother, said through tears, "This is the support we need."

"Our son is your son!" she shouted, to much applause. "This is not about a Black and white thing. This is about a right and wrong thing."

Martin was killed for looking "suspicious" -- being Black in a hoodie -- and the Sanford Police Department did not doubt it.

"Mic check! Are you ready to march for Trayvon?" shouted someone from the stage.

Demanding justice for Martin's murder, the crowd pulled their hoodies up and and marched into the street.

The march shuffled west on 14th Street, spilling off of the sidewalks. In the front of the march, Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams linked arms with other marchers before a brief stand-off with police. As the march hurried passed them, the cops eventually let the councilmen and the crowd behind push forward. Police made several efforts to divert the march, even hauling in NYPD vans and other mass arrest vehicles, but no visible arrests were made, despite the cops' intimidation. They blocked the streets on motorcycles; the crowd turned and marched right by them. Some Occupy Wall Street protesters, with bandanas on their mouths, appeared to block the motorcycles, so that marchers could get by.

The crowd was far different from an Occupy Wall Street demonstration -- darker and rowdy, but less anarchistic. CUNY students chanted, with a rap-like vibe, "Is that a badge or a swastika?" Signs asked "Am I next?"

Young mother April McDonald and her six-year-old son held hands as they marched, their free hands in fists, chanting "We are Trayvon!"

"As a parent, this could to happen any of us," said McDonald, who then told me her own frightening encounter with racism: McDonald said an NYPD officer ran over her cousin, nearly killing him, then attempted to blame the victim, saying he had headphones on. "He had nothing on," she said. "Just another example of how the NYPD, other police, try to cover up, protect their necks."

Woman after woman told me they were mothers, there to show their support for Trayvon Martin's family, and to stand up for their own children.

Many of the men there had been victims of racial profiling. As Fernel Williams, 34, told me, "One time I was just walking to the train and a cop said, 'give me a lift,'" adding, "I didn't know what he was talking about until he lifted up my shirt, because some 'suspicious' guy was running around. A robbery had just been committed."

When the march returned to Union Square, Occupy Wall Street protesters urged the demonstrators to help them hold the park. Organizers of the march were annoyed at the suggestion, and many continued forward, disjointed.

Back in Union Square, a mic-checked speak-out went on for hours. Marchers stood up to tell their stories of encounters with police -- being arrested for walking down the sidewalk, pulled over for being Black, or witnessing an unlawful, forceful stop -- and demanding the police show their badges. "If we don't stand up for something, we will fall down," said one speaker, who urged people to be proactive in their communities, filming the police, asking cops' names, and asserting their rights.

Many speakers urged individuals from all communities to show support. "It rains on all of us," they said.

A sixteen-year-old white girl, Becky, was so moved by their testimony that she spoke, on the verge of tears. "I cannot imagine being frisked," she said. "It is so unfair that people my age are."

"I'm from Tennesse," Becky added, "racism is strong there, and I want to make a difference. People like you have given me the inspiration to do so."

When occupiers began speaking about issues un-related to racism, many marchers for Trayvon Martin became angry, and felt as if Occupy was using their march to push their own agenda. "We are here for Trayvon!" they shouted. Other occupiers urged each other to "Step back, listen...There's something beautiful happening here. We can all learn from each other." Both occupiers and Trayvon marchers, many of which overlapped (people who had supported OWS, but came primarily for Trayvon, and vise-versa) were divided about whether OWS had acted improperly, but most seemed to agree that Occupy has the potential to include more people of color. To do so, Diana Smith of the South Bronx said, "Speak on agendas that affect me. When Ramarley Graham was killed, I didn't see Occupy Wall Street there."

Despite the brief disagreement, Wednesday night was a success for Trayvon Martin's family and other victims of race-based violence. They came together in mass support, took the streets for their rights, and let the world know that they matter.

"We are not criminals," they said, hoodies up.

Sign the petition to prosecute George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin's cold-blooded killer, here.

Kristen Gwynne covers drugs at AlterNet. She graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism and psychology.