SANFORD, Fla. — The nation's leading civil rights advocates and outraged everyday people packed this laid-back lakeside community Monday to demand the arrest of the man who killed African American teenager Trayvon Martin, even as police sources portrayed the unarmed youth as the aggressor.
Beneath an incongruously cheerful Florida sun, the passionate but well-behaved crowd marched, chanting and shouting, toward the Sanford Civic Center. Inside, the City Commission ceded most of its regularly scheduled meeting to Martin's grieving parents, their lawyer and a roster of civil rights luminaries who criticized the city's leadership and its handling of a case that, to some, symbolizes lingering racism and a justice system that too often fails black victims of violence.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared city leaders to Pontius Pilate — who, he said, was just as guilty as "those who held the hammer and the nail" — for deciding not to arrest George Zimmerman, the man who says he shot Martin in self-defense after reporting him to police as a suspicious person. Zimmerman followed Martin after a police dispatcher warned him not to.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, compared the case to the notorious 1955 Mississippi lynching of Emmett Till, which catalyzed the midcentury civil rights movement. "We will not rest, we will not stop, until there is justice for Trayvon Martin," Morial said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton warned that sleepy Sanford, on the shores of Lake Monroe just north of Orlando, was flirting with worldwide infamy. "You are risking going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the 21st century," he said.
Police have said that Zimmerman, 28, is protected by a state law allowing someone who feels threatened to stand his or her ground and meet force with force. Critics have noted that Martin, 17, was walking back from a convenience store with only a cellphone, a pack of Skittles and an iced tea.
State authorities and the Justice Department have opened investigations.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel on Monday reported on its website Zimmerman's account to police: that Martin had been the aggressor on the evening of Feb. 26, knocking him down with a single punch and slamming his head into the ground.
Police told the Sentinel that Zimmerman's story was supported by witnesses, including one who said he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman, striking him, as the neighborhood watch captain cried out for help.
Two other witnesses reportedly have suggested the opposite. One of them, Mary Cutcher, told CNN last week: "If it was self-defense, why was he [Zimmerman] on Trayvon's back?"
The Sentinel reported that Zimmerman told police he'd lost sight of Martin and was heading back to his SUV when the youth stepped into his path. Martin asked Zimmerman whether he had a problem and, when Zimmerman said no and reached for his cellphone, Martin said something like, "Well, you do now," and punched him.
Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of his head when officers arrived, the police report says.
Protesters dismissed the Sentinel report, noting that an attorney for Martin's family has related details of a call the teen made to his girlfriend in which he told her a man was following him and she urged him to run.
The Sentinel also reported that Martin was in Sanford, his father's city, because he had been suspended for 10 days from his Miami school after the remains of marijuana were found in a plastic bag in his book bag.
"Whatever Trayvon was suspended for had absolutely no bearing on the night of Feb. 26," the family's lawyer, Ben Crump, told reporters. "Once again, law enforcement is attempting to demonize the victim."
The case has sparked widespread anger and demonstrations. On Monday, hundreds of people marched through downtown Los Angeles and held a boisterous rally at City Hall. Many in the ethnically mixed crowd waved signs that read, "Jail for Zimmerman ... Justice for Trayvon" and "Stand Up Against Racism."
In Sanford, protesters poured into town in church buses, short-circuited beach vacations, skipped out of work and took their children out of school. Radical Marxist-Leninists marched alongside soccer moms.
Lanny Lamb, 74, a white retiree who grew up in Texas, hobbled along with the marchers in a Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat, a fat cigar between his fingers.
"There's no legalized murder," Lamb said in a booming Texas basso, saying he had been unable to participate in past decades' civil rights demonstrations because he was in the Navy then. "This is my chance to stand up and do what's right."
LaTonda James, 39, an African American community organizer from Miami, brought her 10-year-old son for a crucial but unpleasant civics lesson. "It's important for them to learn from this incident — that it's not equal treatment, that [this country] is not as rose-colored as people think, even though we have a black president," she said.
Fausset reported from Sanford and Lynch from Los Angeles.
Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.