They came by the busload from Atlanta. They came by the carload from throughout Central Florida and the rest of the state. They came wearing hoodies. They carried signs. And Skittles.
They came seeking justice for Trayvon Martin.
An estimated 8,000 people gathered at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford on Thursday night to join their voices with a purpose and to hear the Rev. Al Sharpton give one of his trademark impassioned speeches.
Sharpton, an MSNBC commentator, civil-rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, took the podium nearly an hour into the rally and stirred the crowd.
"Twenty-six days ago, this young man Trayvon Martin ... went to the store for his brother. He came back and lost his life," Sharpton told the cheering crowd. "Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives."
Sharpton said he was angry at the handling of this case, and frustrated that George Zimmerman, the crime-watch volunteer who shot Trayvon, had not been arrested.
"Enough is enough," Sharpton said. "Zimmerman should have been arrested that night. You cannot defend yourself against a pack of Skittles and iced tea."
Sharpton then introduced Trayvon's parents: his mother, Sybrina Fulton, and father, Tracy Martin.
Fighting back tears, and looking scared and nervous, Fulton started with a Bible verse.
"I stand before you today not knowing how I'm walking right now because my heart hurts for my son," Fulton said. "Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son. Thanks so much for your support."
Tracy Martin described his son as a "people's person" who did not deserve to die.
Then Sharpton pressed the crowd to raise money for Trayvon's cause.
"I'm going to start off with $2,500," Sharpton said, holding up a check. "Who's next?"
Then Sharpton announced that television personality Judge Greg Mathis donated $10,000.
Several elected Florida officials were present, and each took a turn addressing the crowd before Sharpton was scheduled to speak. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was one of the first to address the crowd Thursday night. She rallied the crowd by yelling, "I want an arrest, I want a trial."
The she asked the crowd: "What do you want?"
And the crowd responded, "We want an arrest!"
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett pledged to the crowd that he was committed to finding justice in Trayvon's slaying.
"We're truly working on the right steps, I feel, right now," Triplett said. "The true point right now is to find justice."
Some in the crowd jeered at Triplett while he was speaking. Brown then took the podium and called Triplett back up, demanding the crowd pay him the respect she said he deserves.
"I called him Monday night and told him, 'I need you in Washington tomorrow,' " Brown said. "And he flew four hours to get there. Let's give respect where it's due."
Just as the rally was getting under way, news came that Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Trayvon's shooting death, removing the state attorney who had been considering the case.
Just hours earlier, Sanford police Chief Bill Lee Jr. announced he was stepping down from his post "temporarily."
"My role as the leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation," said Lee, brought down by a firestorm of criticism over the shooting death the unarmed 17-year-old.
Darren Jones, an Oviedo resident who attended the Sharpton rally, said he attended Lee's earlier news conference and asked, "If the roles were reversed, would we be here today?" The chief didn't answer his question, but he's certain that "the answer is [Trayvon] would have definitely been arrested."
While the crowd was gathering across town at Fort Mellon Park, news came that the chief has stepped down, and hundreds erupted into a spontaneous roar, chanting, "The chief is gone; Zimmerman is next."
The extended family of Trayvon huddled in one spot amid signs and T-shirts emblazoned with the teen's now-ubiquitous head shot.
Patricia Richardson-Tim of Tampa is Trayvon's third cousin, and she said she last saw him at a family gathering to celebrate a relative's 85th birthday.
"He was happy-go-lucky," she said, wearing a black T-shirt with a memorial stamp with stylized images of Trayvon.
When she heard what happened, "it tore my heart," but the support from strangers makes the family "feel really, really good," she said.
Trayvon's father: 'It's tough'
Earlier Thursday, Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, spoke with the Orlando Sentinel in the gated community where his son was shot to death Feb. 26.
"I'm trying to hold everyone together; it's tough," Martin said. His last conversation with Trayvon, he said, was about whether the teen had enough money for pizza.
Martin said Sanford police told him they would walk him through the crime scene but never did. On Wednesday, the bereaved father walked the path Trayvon may have taken the night he was shot.
Martin said this will all be over when Zimmerman is sentenced "for the crime he committed to Trayvon Martin."
"He took a life," Martin said. "He took my son's life, and he needs to punished in a court of law for what he did."
Martin said of the groundswell of support has helped his family because it shows the nation stands behind them and against injustice.
At midday Thursday, the New Black Panther Party protested the killing of Trayvon by gathering outside the Sanford Police Department and drew about 40 onlookers. The small but vocal group demonstrated for about an hour, renewing its call for police to arrest the shooter, 28-year-old Zimmerman.
"We don't hate anyone — we hate injustice," said leader Mikhail Muhammad.
Busloads from Atlanta
Several packed buses departed Atlanta-area churches to make their way to Central Florida after local radio personality Derrick Boazman sounded the rally cry through his influential talk show.
Boazman said he received hundreds of calls from listeners who broke down in tears and sobs live on the air, demanding someone coordinate transportation to Sanford.
He organized a few buses and a caravan of other vehicles that left First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday morning carrying more than 200 people. They held a prayer vigil and rally before departing.
"It's been like going through the loss of a family member. You can hear the grieving in their voices. You hear the pain of the heart, and it comes from everyone," Boazman said from aboard a bus in transit. "We saw this young brother [Trayvon] reduced to almost a noncitizen and see a government that reduced his humanity and abandoned him."
Boazman said he was touched when a grandmother called his show, saying she had a 17-year-old grandson and "needed to get to Florida" to answer Trayvon's cry for help heard on 911 tapes.
It is still unclear whether it was Trayvon's or George Zimmerman's voice on the tapes.
"We just don't understand how this could be," said Pastor Timothy McDonald of First Iconium. "I'm encouraged by the attention, but it's supposed to get results, and we haven't gotten that."
Oviedo resident Dorothea Hamilton said she would attend the Sharpton rally in Sanford because Trayvon's death has brought this issue disturbingly close to home.
"I have a grandson who is about 20 years old, and I would really be afraid to bring him into this county knowing [what could happen] here," she said. "I wouldn't be able to face my son and his wife again if anything happened to my grandbaby."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times