Acquittal shifts race issue in US back to the fore

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin stirred outrage Monday among African-Americans while resurrecting tough questions about racism in America today.

Suspicions that the killing of the unarmed Florida teenager was racially motivated hung heavily over the lengthy trial of the pistol-packing neighborhood watch volunteer whose defense hinged on the state's "stand your ground" law.

That controversial statute -- first enacted in Florida in 2005 and now in place in about two dozen states -- gives citizens the right to use deadly force if they believe their life to be at risk.

The venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched an online petition to pressure the US Department of Justice to pull Zimmerman back into court, this time on civil rights grounds.

"We are outraged and heartbroken (and) we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed," its president Benjamin Jealous said in a statement.

Civil rights firebrand Reverend Al Sharpton called Monday for a "Justice for Trayvon National Day of Action" for next Saturday in more than 100 US cities to keep a spotlight fixed firmly on the case.

"We're not having a fit. We're having a movement," he told syndicated radio talk show host Tom Joyner, whose breakfast program is widely heard among African-Americans.

The 17-year-old hoodie-wearing Martin was carrying nothing more lethal than a bag of Skittles when he died, but when police freed Zimmerman without charge just a few hours afterwards, the seeds of suspicion were sowed.

The ensuing public outcry led to the 28-year-old Hispanic American's belated arrest -- six weeks after the fact -- and a trial before a jury of six woman, all but one white, covered breathlessly by all-news cable TV channels.

Rarely did the issue of race come up in the court room, not least after Judge Debra Nelson ruled at the outset that prosecutors could not say that Zimmerman profiled Martin on the basis of race. Age and fashion sense, yes. But not race.

But race loomed large in the sidelines throughout the trial, then returned to the forefront with a vengeance when the jury late Saturday acquitted Zimmerman, triggering angry protests throughout the United States.

In New York, 15 people were arrested, mostly for disorderly conduct, a police official said. At least six others were arrested when riot police in Los Angeles -- where memories of trial-related unrest in 1992 are fresh -- intervened.

In a post-trial press conference Sunday, Zimmerman's lawyer Mark O'Mara startled many observers by declaring that if his client had been black, "he never would have been charged with a crime."

Martin's death, he said, had been made "the focus for a civil rights event" in which Zimmerman would be the fall guy, "used as the creation of a civil rights violation, none of which was borne out by the facts."

Others meanwhile felt let down by Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 as the first black president was seen by many as a hopeful sign that America was finally putting its ugly history of slavery and segregation behind it.

The case is widely regarded as the most racially sensitive issue in the United States since Obama entered the White House.

Without condemning the verdict outright, Obama -- a father of two girls who once said that if he had a son, he would "look like Trayvon" -- appealed for calm, saying: "We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken."

"There's a widespread sense that this verdict is not justice and that it shows again that the courts are not capable of producing justice," said Ajamu Dilahunt of Black Workers for Justice, a North Carolina civil rights group.

"There's certainly interest in remedies (such as) changing laws like 'Stand Your Ground'. But there's wide disappointment in the rather meaningless statement that came from the White House."