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Residents want to learn from lessons of Fla. case

The Virginia Black History Month Association held a town hall meeting to discuss the effect Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal had on the local community.

About 225 people attended the Sunday discussion at the Fredericksburg Hospitality House and Conference Center, with several national figures providing insight during a teleconference.

The meeting’s audience, which required an RSVP, consisted primarily of individuals and families who felt pain or anger over the recent events.

But there were also attendees who sought to understand a perspective different from their own.

“I can understand the concern of the community, I think,” Ken Mergenthal said. “I would like to hear the different perspectives.”

Mergenthal, a Fredericksburg-based attorney, attended with his wife, Helen, who works at Germanna Community College.

Originally, Germanna was to host the discussion on its Fredericksburg campus, but the event’s popularity grew to the point that the organization moved to the Hospitality House.

After a brief welcome from Gerry Griffin and Catrina Upshaw “to ensure communication and open dialogue,” opening remarks came from organization President Bill Jones.

Jones emphasized the need for community action in order to make a difference.

“If Stand Your Ground laws continue, then potentially our sons and daughters are in jeopardy,” he said. “Because we have to do something. Because we can’t not do nothing.”

A panel comprised of national and local figures convened in the conference center and over a teleconference line.

Angela Rye, president of IMPACT Strategies, spoke over the phone along with MSNBC legal contributor Seema Iyer and Hassan Christian, policy director for the Congressional Black Caucus.

Panelists provided context and facts that may have been previously unknown to the crowd. Mostly, though, they tried to encourage the crowd into positive action in the name of Trayvon Martin and their own children.

Iyer spent more time providing context about Stand Your Ground laws as they applied to Virginians.

Iyer sees a remarkable similarity between Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and Virginia law.

Virginia does not have an official “Stand Your Ground” law in place, but Virginia legal precedent holds true to the “Castle Doctrine,” which allows people who utilize deadly force while on their own property to cite justifiable self-defense.

Phillip Agnew, executive director of the activist organization Dream Defenders, spoke on the panel from Tallahassee, Fla., as his group mounted Day 13 of a non-violent protest.

The action, Agnew said, was designed to push Florida Gov. Rick Scott into convening a special legislative session to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

An eight-member panel of professionals also provided insights and answered audience questions.

Eugene Williams, assistant principal at Orange County High School, was joined by Courtland High School Principal Larry Marks, attorney Marcus Scriven, psychologist Philicia Jefferson and the Rev. Dwight Michael of Piney Branch Baptist Church.

Spotsylvania School Board member Ray Lora was also on the panel, along with NAACP Area 13 Chairman Mozett Petway and writer Christopher Williams, who Jones credited for the discussion’s existence.

After the panelists spoke, Jones opened up the floor for the audience. During that period, several mothers, brothers and political candidates came forward to share stories about unnecessary violence in their own lives.

Malvina Kay, chairwoman of the Fredericksburg School Board, said that action and protection of children begins in the schools.

“I need to hear from you,” Kay said. “There used to be a network and it’s fallen apart.”

Tears, laughter and cries of “Amen!” were repeated throughout the public discussion as audience members found new ways to relate to each other through story.

Jones said the discussion was a success overall, adding, however, that he had planned to do this just once.

According to Christopher Williams and several other audience members, Sunday’s meeting needed to be only a beginning.

“It’s about all of us,” Williams said. “It’s not about being black or brown. This could happen to any one of us.”

Dawnthea Price: 540/374-5444