Trayvon Martin march raises questions about those who espouse a legacy of oppression

John Christian throws a very polite protest march.

Nothing at first seemed amiss with the peaceful, prayerful show of support and the demand for justice for the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen shot and killed Feb. 26 in Sanford by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who has been identified variously as white or Hispanic.

The march called by Christian, a black Leesburg city commissioner and pastor, was billed as "unity for all races." It started Thursday in a historically black neighborhood and ended on the green lawn in front of City Hall right about dinnertime.

Here in Lake County, folks bring their lawn chairs, water bottles and snacks. Preachers, after all, are seldom short-winded. Before the main event, folks were visiting, reconnecting with friends from years back and swapping memories from the time when blacks were shortchanged in Leesburg in just about every way.

I am white, and I felt at home in the crowd of several hundred people who were mostly black. Perhaps that's because I, too, believe that shooter George Zimmerman had no business "patrolling" a neighborhood armed with a gun. What kind of normal person does that? He shouldn't have been following Martin, who had done nothing wrong, and he should have listened to a police dispatcher who told him he didn't need to do that.

At the very least, Zimmerman is guilty of this: He set in motion a series of events that led to the needless death of a teenager whose short life never should have ended in a pool of blood on a small-town sidewalk. Zimmerman must be held accountable.

'We can do better'

Christian, in his dual roles, seldom misses a chance to marry religion and politics. That sometimes earns him criticism, and Thursday's event was no exception. He urged participants to continue praying for the families involved, including Zimmerman's, and to continue demanding justice for Martin's family.

His point was that a person who isn't black got suspicious of a person who was black — again. The suspicion was based on race — as usual — and the black person ended up dead — again.

Christian called for safe neighborhoods in all parts of town and branched out to admonish the crowd about what he said was most shameful — black-on-black crime.

"We can do better, Lake County," Christian urged. "We can do better."

I nearly yelled, "Right on, brother!"

Yet, I still found the march troubling.

The disquieting aspect was the racially divisive, subtle messages dropped again and again into the speeches. The event was billed as an opportunity for unity yet was based on the notion that blacks are still disrespected, seen as suspicious — even systematically oppressed.

'Scheduling conflicts'

Blacks have a lot of "catching up" to do in Leesburg, some residents thought blacks couldn't pull off a peaceful march and black children "who can't sit still" are thrown out of classrooms, deliberately depriving them of the education needed to succeed in society, Christian told them.

He stated at the beginning of the event that City Manager Jay Evans had facilitated the march — maybe at the peril of his job — and that the folks gathered there would have to support him if trouble arose with the other commissioners.

That last was particularly disingenuous. Christian had sent out a news release declaring that the Leesburg had "formed a partnership" with sponsors of the march, which was news to his fellow commissioners.

They hadn't been asked if they wanted to be partners in a racially charged protest over a controversial tragedy that didn't occur in their town, and some had no desire for the city to be involved. Indeed, none of them attended, perhaps because they didn't care to be used to further their colleague's agenda.

Neither did a wide variety of other elected officials who suddenly all had "scheduling conflicts" when they got Christian's invitation. Odd, considering this is an election year, and lots of them would show up cheerfully to cut the red ribbon if two Brownies opened a lemonade stand.

Tipping point passed

Evans, who gave a brief welcome to the crowd, later said that none of the commissioners had threatened his job and that the city routinely assigns police officers to civil demonstrations. According to Christian, that "creates a partnership, in my opinion." Whatever.

The commissioner defended his remarks as true, but he didn't answer the question of how he could promote unity by repeatedly telling marchers that they're beaten down by others.

Real unity isn't achieved by holding out one hand for a shake while slapping the recipient back and forth across the cheek with the other. Somewhere, that has to end.

This country elected an African-American to the office of president. After that, it's hardly possible to chant stale claims about widespread contempt for blacks, in Leesburg or anywhere else. Though there is still plenty to be done in the arenas of equality and civil rights, a tipping point in the American consciousness has passed. The John Christians in all communities should recognize that and tap into the support and power it gives them.

Those who today continue to espouse a legacy of oppression are doing the next generation of all colors a disservice. They are alienating people who would be natural friends and allies and only widening the gap.

This calls for focus. Nobody in Leesburg pulled the trigger. The enemy of every thinking person is the man who presumed Trayvon Martin was up to no good simply because he was young, black and breathing.

Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake
CHICAGO

More