Schenectady County

Hamilton Hill rally protests Florida teen’s death

It was a deeply personal motive that brought many of the people to the marching line at Hullett and

It was a deeply personal motive that brought many of the people to the marching line at Hullett and Albany streets on a cold Thursday evening.

The man with the white hoodie knew many of the dozens who showed up to demand justice for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. They were a collection of hard-working American citizens, he said, who have faced racial profiling for no apparent reason.

The man with the Skittles in his hand and the Arizona iced tea in his jacket pocket — none of which look like a gun, he pointed out — has seen friends denied jobs because their ZIP code is 12307. It’s otherwise known as Hamilton Hill.

The one at the end, shouting “Hi” and giving hugs to friends on Hamilton Street, has had his trouble with the law. But he was in the wrong because of a negative lifestyle he has since abandoned, and the Florida teenager had just gone out for Skittles and an iced tea, he said.

As the marching line moved further into Hamilton Hill and toward Jerry Burrell Park, a troubled neighborhood appeared united.

“It’s called Neighborhood Watch,” shouted a passing driver. “You don’t need a gun to watch!”

The line cheered.

A woman told her two small children playing on the front lawn to wave at the grownups who were “doing a real good thing.”

Two men come out of a front door, talking loudly. “What are they protesting?” one asks.

“They shot my boy,” says the other. “They shot my brother Trayvon.”

Martin, 17, was fatally shot the night of Feb. 26 by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer. Since Martin’s death, people across the nation have protested the failure of police to arrest the alleged shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman.

Martin was unarmed and wearing a hoodie while walking through a gated community to the home of his his father’s fiancee. Zimmerman saw him and called 911, telling an operator the boy looked suspicious, and then began following him. A confrontation ensued that ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin.

The incident spurred questions of racial bias and cast doubt over the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force, rather than withdraw, if they feel a reasonable threat of death or serious injury.

His doubts about the law were one of many personal reasons the Rev. Ted Ward, president of Schenectady County’s NAACP branch, organized the local rally. He led the marching chorus around the block to Jerry Burrell Park.

The line, which had grown to more than 50 during the walk, gathered on wide steps facing away from the setting sun and toward a group of boys playing on the basketball courts. There were kids from the Carver Community Center, organizers from community suicide prevention organization Project HOPE, local NAACP board members and a handful of community officials.

“We in Schenectady and across the nation have got to stand up,” Ward’s voice boomed over a microphone at the park. “We don’t want the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law to happen anywhere. Imagine if there was a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in Hamilton Hill, in Mont Pleasant, in New York City. Well, it could be your son. It could be your daughter. So we’re standing against that today in solidarity.”

Ward elicited cries of agreement and understanding nods when he mentioned how the black community has to warn each other not to stand in crowds. He said he’s been outside with groups of black friends and hears them tell each other, “Don’t get in a crowd.”

“You all know what I’m talking about,” he said. “Because it’s this false idea that if we’re in a crowd, we’re doing something we shouldn’t be. Listen, you all know that’s right. Or did I let the secret out?”

Racial profiling was to blame in Martin’s death, said many in the crowd Thursday. Unfortunately, they agreed, they’ve felt it to some degree in their own neighborhoods.

“I don’t like to play the race card,” said 44-year-old Sam Tolliver, who was holding the Skittles and iced tea, “but if it was a white kid who got shot, that guy would be locked up right now. He probably would have went through and got his sentence by now. For (Zimmerman) to still be out and free, it’s not right.”

Rockie Mann knows there’s a problem with the youth in some Schenectady neighborhoods. The city resident knows that police have a job to do and he supports that, he said.

But he believes that people have spoken out so loudly about the Martin shooting because they’re frustrated with the continued harassment they think is solely based on the color of their skin.

“I just wish that somehow we could all get together as a community,” said Mann, 51, “help create jobs, help create opportunities. I think what you have here is a collection of positive people who work hard, who would like to get their fair shake, who would like to get treated like regular American citizens. And some of these good American, law-abiding citizens get that same harassment.”

One of the most frustrating things about the entire incident, he said, is not that Martin was a young black boy who was shot to death. For all he knows, Zimmerman is very well innocent.

“But nobody decided to do anything. Nobody bothered to do anything to find out,” said Mann. “And that was the disturbing part for me.”

The crowd was glad to see one of their city representatives at the hoodie rally. Soon-to-be appointed City Council member Marion Porterfield took the microphone Thursday, asking the community to stand together for justice. It’s not enough to stand up once, she said.

“It cannot be one time. We have to continue to do things to stand up for our rights, to stand up for our young people, our children in the streets. We have to stand together, put our differences aside to make sure that our community is safe for everyone that lives here.”

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