Published August 12. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - Approximately 50 people, many in hooded sweatshirts, gathered near a gazebo at the Howard T. Brown Park Sunday for an NAACP-sponsored "Hoodie Rally," which featured community leaders and local representatives speaking about racial profiling in the community and commemorating the upcoming anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
The speakers frequently referenced the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and last month's decision by a Florida jury that George Zimmerman, who shot him, was not guilty because he acted in self-defense.
Martin was murdered "because he looked like a thug," said keynote speaker Pastor Devin Johnson of the Tabernacle of Deliverance and Praise. He said Martin would not have been shot if he were wearing a suit and tie.
Johnson, himself a former crack cocaine dealer who has been shot, urged community members to reach out to youth who seem to be part of a thug culture and help them.
"Why do we have to wait for this young man to be laid out like an animal, murdered in a parking lot, to do something?" he demanded, urging people to "stop praying and start working."
He also decried racial profiling based on appearance.
"I sold crack right here," he said, "but even when I changed my life I was racially profiled right here."
Isa Mujahid, a field organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said "people need to know that racial profiling is against the law." Insisting that people should know their rights, he passed out pocket Constitutions and "bust cards," which detail a person's rights when stopped by the police, an immigration officer or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Still, said the next speaker, attorney Sarette Williams, "if you think the laws are enough to protect you, they're not." She said she believes too many unarmed brown and black men and boys were murdered by neighborhood watchmen, police officers and security guards.
Other speakers included State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-19th District, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, and a representative from the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.
Carolyn Harris of Groton, who watched the speakers from the back of a minivan, said she is a member of the Tabernacle of Deliverance and Praise and came largely to see her pastor speak. Sitting next to Johnson's daughter, she explained that she was "very proud" of the event and that all of the speakers were making a lot of sense to her.
Several speakers wrestled with the concept of justice in the wake of Zimmerman's "not guilty" verdict.
"We felt betrayed by our own justice system," said Ayzel Morales, describing the response of youth at the NAACP's 104th convention in Florida when they heard the verdict. Yet he cited the fact that NAACP has always been a nonviolent organization and tried to remember to put intellect before emotion.
"I always remember to take care of my business that way," said Morales.
Alice Cunningham, a member of the Tabernacle of Deliverance and Praise who watched the speakers from under a shady tree, said she believes justice is in God's hands now.
He's the only one who knows what truly happened that day and we will "all stand before him," said Cunningham.