A group of Long Islanders, concerned about what they said was racial inequality at the heart of a Florida murder trial over the killing of an unarmed black teen, agreed Wednesday night to take the discussion to a wider audience in the region.
Community leaders organized the forum after sensing the need to channel frustration they noticed, particularly in the black community, over the verdict Saturday in Florida that cleared neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman in the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin.
The discussion held at the Molloy College Suffolk Center in East Farmingdale attracted a diverse group of more than 60 people who responded to the leaders' call "to have a rare and open dialogue on the thorny issue" of race.
Many spoke candidly about their frustrations with the case and about the slow progress in the fight for equality on Long Island as blacks and other minorities face barriers in housing, education and civil rights.
A. Brian Leander of Elmont said the Zimmerman acquittal left many feeling that "a young man will never be able to tell his story" on issues that affect black men assailed by racial prejudice.
"What I hear Trayvon say from the grave is that 'I'm scared,' " Leander said. "He died because he chose to fight, and for African-American men, we face that choice in every waking moment of our lives, whether to fight or flee."
Related marches and mostly peaceful demonstrations have taken place throughout the nation as activists call for the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue federal charges in the case.
Deidra Parrish Williams, a hospital foundation executive and forum organizer, said racially charged cases often cause residents of Long Island's fractured communities to "retreat into their tents" instead of addressing tensions.
"We have inherited a segregated region and my thinking is we can do better," she said. "At the very least, I hope that we break through one basic barrier and that is the barrier that keeps us from having conversations with people of other races."
Event co-organizer David Kilmnick, an advocate on issues affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said he hopes that "out of this comes a coalition to work together on discrimination and inequality across all different groups."
While speaker after speaker emphasized the need to take specific steps to improve access to education, pursue political representation and seek institutional reforms, the group agreed to continue these forums as the effort grows.
One man asked the audience to start spreading the message of equality and acceptance with something as simple as a growing circle of friends: "When was the last time you had someone over for dinner who was not from your race or ethnicity?"