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East County reacts to acquittal of neighborhood watchman who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin


As news of the Zimmerman trial verdict spread across the country, reactions ranged from shock to anger to relief.

Nearly 18 months after Trayvon Martin was killed, activists, students and community leaders have rallied together to defend both the 17-year-old Florida high school student and 29-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer.

At the heart of the debate lies a dialogue regarding the role of race and self-protection laws that has erupted into a nationwide controversy. Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Peruvian mother, and Martin was African American.

On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, on his neighborhood watch patrol, Zimmerman encountered Martin as he was walking back from a convenience store. Zimmerman called the police with suspicions about Martin and proceeded to approach the teen. An altercation between the two ended in Zimmerman shooting Martin and has led to a highly publicized trial that ended Saturday in Zimmerman’s acquittal.

In Portland Sunday, hundreds of people rallied at Peninsula Park, while demonstrations broke out around the country.

For East County residents, the case sparked heated debate, community action and even a song.

In particular, the trial spurred police, neighborhood watch groups and attorneys to reflect on Oregon’s own laws and crime prevention procedures, and how they compare to Florida’s policies.

Law, self-defense and neighborhood surveillance

“I don’t know of any groups that are like Zimmerman’s,” said Sgt. Claudio Grandjean, of the Gresham Police. “Here they are just the eyes and ears of the police.”

Like Florida, Oregon law enforcement officials rely on volunteer neighborhood watch groups to help reduce crime and public fear, but practices vary by organization and prioritize peaceful behavior.

According to the citizen patrol guide for crime prevention released by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office, group duties include watching for criminal activity — drug dealing, burglaries, theft and vandalism — while on patrol.

Volunteers are required to ensure their personal safety at all times by checking in with police officers, using de-escalation techniques, avoiding aggressive behavior and, most importantly, traveling in pairs. If available, a uniform may be issued, but guns, handcuffs and knives must not be brought on duty.

This differs from Zimmerman, who carried a concealed gun and was on patrol alone.

“Safety is the number-one concern,” said Joe “Rocky” Graziano, Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy for Corbett. “Feeling nervous and scared is a normal reaction, but to not panic and do the right thing.”

That includes reporting an issue to police rather than confronting a potential criminal. Volunteers must also avoid potentially racist activity.

“Our volunteers focus on suspicious behaviors, not stereotypes,” Graziano said.

Neighborhood watch groups are supposed to concentrate on specific events — like people looking in house windows or attempting to open parked cars — rather than on clothing or skin color.

“In our group we make a point not to discriminate,” said Catherine Nicewood, president of Rockwood’s Neighborhood Association. “We’ve had no problems with calls regarding racial profiling.”

Nicewood said the lack of racial profiling by neighborhood watch volunteers is due to community support found through social organizations, faith groups and family events, such as National Night Out.

Along with questions of racial profiling, the Zimmerman trial also drew attention to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which states that a person is allowed to use deadly force in self-defense if being attacked with no duty to retreat, according to Chapter 776 of 2012 Florida statutes.

Similar to Florida, in Oregon, people also can use physical force in self-defense without the duty to retreat.

“Requiring a person to run away might put them in a situation that might put them in greater harm,” sad Ryan Anfuso, a Portland attorney.

Self-defense using deadly force, however, is only justifiable if the aggressor also is using deadly force, Anfuso added. In such a case, an aggressor’s death may go untried.

“We have had situations where people have had confrontations over whatever and people have died and they weren’t charged,” Grandjean said. “That’s not uncommon.”

But whether Zimmerman would have been found guilty or innocent had the incident occurred in Oregon remains unclear.

“The question is, would it be reasonable for George Zimmerman to respond the way he did, and is the force he used reasonable?” Anfuso said. “Is it OK to bring a gun to a fist fight?”

A call to action, solidarity

To many in East Multnomah County, the answer to that questions is “no.”

In conversations about the case, popular Mt. Hood Community College speech instructor Larry Dawkins has posed a question to students and faculty members: How would they would feel if after teaching or attending an evening class, they were followed by a strange man?

Most say they’d be scared to death. Similar, Dawkins imagines, to how Martin must have felt.

“There are no winners in this one,” Dawkins said. “He (Zimmerman) killed someone who hadn’t done anything. Yes, he did win the verdict, but he has to live with knowing he killed an innocent teenager.”

Dawkins said he has felt a mix of thoughts and emotions since the Zimmerman verdict was reached Saturday, namely sorrow for the Martin family and pride for leaders of some of the largest civil rights organizations.

“They’re taking the stand not of violence but of using peaceful means,” said Dawkins, who met Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. “We could have been having riots all over the country.”

Dawkins said he was heartened to see people of all races involved in protests surrounding the Zimmerman case and that, in his opinion, the Florida police “came out clean,” giving Zimmerman good advice Feb. 26, 2012, not to approach the teen.

“I make the claim that the biggest mistake made (by Zimmerman) was not doing what the police recommended,” Dawkins said. “We need to have a discussion on what constitutes self-defense. That’s not really clear in Florida and other areas. Does it mean that if someone’s following me, I can pull out a gun? What should we do and not do in protecting property?

“For people not used to being around people of color, we have to be careful not to stereotype them as being criminal,” Dawkins said. “The penalty (of racial profiling) was enormous in terms of what happened to this poor boy and his family.”

While East Portland resident Vern Sundin and his brother, Brian, of Hillsboro, found the death of Trayvon Martin horrible, they say the Zimmerman case has received too much publicity.

“There are kids murdered every day,” Vern Sundin said. “I think the challenge is to ask how you can serve the community and reach out to youths.”

Added his brother, “The news loves picking on the race issue. I wish we could get beyond that. We’re all human beings.”

April Epperson, an East Portland resident, said she thought Zimmerman should have been charged with at least manslaughter.

“Maybe what the prosecution went for was too harsh,” Epperson said.

But for Jenny Glass, executive director of the Rosewood Initiative, the disappointment with Saturday’s verdict was much deeper.

“Physically, I felt disbelief, anger and frustration with the lack of change and justice in the system, especially for people of color,” Glass said.

The case has further motivated Glass in her work.

A nonprofit organization, the Rosewood Initiative is dedicated to making the community within Gresham and Northeast Portland a more desirable place to live, work and play.

It partners with residents, businesses, faith and social services, neighborhood associations and public safety in its efforts, working with people of many races, ethnicities and income levels to overcome neighborhood challenges.

“The work we do on a daily basis is a very natural community-based way to help improve relations between community groups,” Glass said. “I’m hoping that this (the activism following the Zimmerman trial) will create enough momentum to have a big impact (on race relations). People who are activists and doing good work need to be really vocal and united in asking for justice and change in order for the impact to be positive. It has to reach a tipping point.”

Glass works with two activists from OneLife Portland, an organization combining activism, apparel and music.

Brothers Christopher and LeFoster Williams combined their personal histories with their frustration with stories like Trayvon Martin’s and made it into a rap, “Hurricane,” nearly a year before the verdict was reached.

“The verdict happened,” Christopher Williams said. “We can only move forward and make sure (a case like the Zimmerman one) never happens again. People need to open their minds, educate themselves, look at history and identify problems (regarding race relations). There’s a lot to learn from this case.”

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