DeKALB – Members of the community rallied Friday in DeKalb and called for justice in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Nina Cunningham organized a rally, which started at the Martin Luther King Commons at Northern Illinois University and ended at DeKalb High School after a march. A crowd of about 100 people, many in hooded sweatshirts, gathered to take a stand against racism, injustice and violence.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch captain who says he shot the teenager in self-defense. Zimmerman has not been charged in the incident. Martin, who was unarmed at the time of his death, was walking to his father’s fiancee’s house after going to a convenience store. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was shot.
Speaking from a podium in the MLK Commons, Cunningham criticized Florida’s stand-your-ground law and called for justice for the Martin family.
“Justice is blind, but the people administering justice aren’t,” she said.
Several people spoke Friday on the issue of race and the justice system, and some talked about how they feel racism exists in the DeKalb and Sycamore communities.
DeKalb County Board member Derek Tyson, D-DeKalb, said he has been a victim of pretextual traffic stops in DeKalb because of the color of his skin. He said former DeKalb Police Chief Bill Feithen supported pretextual traffic stops; Tyson said he feels the law gives police the discretion to pull over whomever they choose, whether or not it’s justified.
“It’s been going on in DeKalb a long time,” Tyson said. “The next police chief should know we have a voice.”
Feithen, who was not at Friday’s rally, said pretextual traffic stops – which is when someone is pulled over for a traffic infraction – are legal and have been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Police can’t stop someone without a reason, Feithen said, but can pull over a motorist if a vehicle has, for instance, a loud muffler or a taillight that doesn’t work. Officers can then check other things, he said, such as a driver’s license or if the driver has been drinking. Feithen said sees “absolutely nothing wrong” with that.
“If an officer is stopping someone because they’re black, white, Hispanic, then they’re racially profiling,” he said during a phone interview, adding that is not what DeKalb Police do. “Our numbers traditionally for the ratio of minorities to population here have consistently been comparable to other university towns.”
The Rev. Jerry Wright from The Rock Christian Church in DeKalb quoted Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He said when he thinks of Martin, he thinks of a potential student at NIU and a brother.
As the father, he said it’s challenging to raise black sons in a society where some people are threatened by them. That’s why he wanted to stand up for Martin.
“Evil is allowed to triumph when good folks stay silent,” he said.
NIU graduate student Shaun Smith said Martin represented his son and himself. He said racism exists as a covert institution and instances like Martin’s death cause it to bubble up.
“We can reveal its covert tendency for what it is,” he said. “We’re here to stand up against racism and for folks like Trayvon all over.”
Cunningham said she believed with all her heart that Zimmerman was racist, but said even if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t change the injustice in the laws and law enforcement agencies that have kept Zimmerman from being arrested.
“If everyone had done their jobs, there would be no need to assemble like this,” she said. “Racism is only part of this story. It’s a much bigger picture.”
She encouraged everyone in attendance to register to vote to help keep what she called a senseless law such as the stand-your-ground law out of Illinois.
Jessica Lyons, a member of the DeKalb School District 428 board who spoke during portion of the rally held at DeKalb High School, said racial inequality is a national issue that’s reflected in the district’s big achievement gaps.
“We want to shine a spotlight and look at something that’s not right here,” she said.
NIU student Harold Raddle Jr. spoke about several of his family members who died because of gun violence at young ages. He told the approximately 40 people who marched there from NIU to not stand for violence.
“What you do can create change,” he said. “Express love and push out positivity and it’ll change the whole world.”