CITY DIVIDED

03.30.12

Sanford Frets About Prospect of Riots Over Trayvon Martin Killing

Residents and authorities fear angry and frustrated citizens may explode into the streets as more conflicting information about Trayvon Martin’s slaying surfaces and the investigation drags on without an arrest.

Lucy Mims doesn’t want to see any more trouble in her hometown of Sanford, Florida. The white, 75-year-old former nursing assistant and midwife has lived many peaceful years in her quaint three-bedroom home in the small city some 50 miles outside Orlando. That all changed four weeks ago, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch leader just 20 minutes from Mims’ s home. As conflicting details of the teenager’s murder continues to trickle out, Mims is worried that the lid is may soon blow off the simmering pot that Sanford now is.

“Every day something comes out worse than the day before,’’ says Mims. “At first you didn’t know what to believe because it never sounded right. But now it seems like that Zimmerman did shoot that boy in cold blood for no reason and just lied about it.’’

News footage of a seemingly unharmed George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader who shot the unarmed teenager as he walked home with Skittles and ice tea flooded the Internet and major news shows on Wednesday. In the aftermath of the shooting, Zimmerman claimed self-defense and told police that a beating by Martin left him with a broken nose and serious bruises to the back of his head. Images of Zimmerman just 30 minutes after the shooting showed few if any injuries as he was walked without assistance into the Sanford police station.

Though Pamela Bondi, the special Florida prosecutor appointed to oversee the Martin case has asked the city for patience, growing evidence contradicting Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense now has some worried that the measured calm across Sanford won’t last much longer.

The city has seen its share controversial racial incidents. In 2010 the son of a Sanford lieutenant was caught on tape beating a homeless black man but wasn’t arrested until the tape began airing on local televisions stations a month later.

“I get a little angrier every time I read or hear something about that kid,’’ says 24-year-old Travis James, an African-American auto repairman. “ To me this city doesn’t care about black people and then I heard Zimmerman’s dad talking about how the president and all the black people are filled with hate. What was his son filled with that night? We always have to be the bigger people and keep our calm and do the right thing. I get tired of that.’’ 
 
George Zimmerman’s father, Robert, a former judge, told a local Florida news station that President Obama, organizations like the NAACP, and many others have expressed intense hate towards his son for weeks. President Obama told reporters, “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon,’’ when asked about the incident last week. 
 
“We understand from a father’s stand point that he’s trying to protect and support his son,’’ said Martin family lawyer Benjamin Crump. “Just like Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin would have liked to have done for their son Trayvon on the night he died. But people aren’t blind. They heard the 911 calls and they saw the video that disputes everything his son has said. His son needs to be arrested.’’ 
 
Sources inside the Sanford Police Department say they are well aware of the potential for social unrest and of growing anger due not arresting Zimmerman. As a result, the source says, extra patrols have been on standby for weeks, and neighboring cities have been alerted in the event assistance is needed.

‘This city has been heading down this path for a while,’’ said a well-placed source in the police department. “They didn’t understand how this case would blow up, but they should have. Tempers have been up in the air since the black homeless man incident a few years ago. That kind of thing can only happen a few times before people lose it.’’

As in many areas of the South, Sanford has sharply-drawn social and economic lines. Areas of distinct wealth often are just a few miles away from patches of glaring poverty, creating an often tense racial divide. Many say Martin’s presence—and shooting death—in one of the more affluent areas of the city puts the spotlight back on just who belongs where in Sanford.

“It’s almost as if this shooting is to remind us that some places you just don’t need to be,’’ said Howard Williams, a 34-year-old unemployed textile worker. “It’s telling people of color that if you go somewhere you don’t belong, you may get shot and no one will pay.’’

Though state and federal investigations are under way in the Martin shooting, most legal experts say it will be weeks if not months before a decision on a Zimmerman arrest is made. The special prosecutor could make a move before that, but it’s widely believed she won’t. That reality doesn’t sit well with a number of Sanford residents of all colors.

“If information continues to come out like what just came out that tell a different story, we have a problem,’’ Mims said. “People won’t sit still too long when they think someone has murdered a child for no reason. I can’t blame them.’’

Civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson say they believe the protests and demands for Zimmerman’s arrest will continue to be peaceful as long as the investigation continues to move forward. 

But Lehigh University Professor James Peterson says that only applies if justice for Trayvon actually is achieved in the end.

“If Zimmerman isn’t eventually arrested and sentenced, there could be problems, and I’m not sure Sanford is ready for that.’’

“African-Americans are used to being patient while waiting on the slow wheels of justice to work for us,’’ says Peterson, a professor of African studies at Lehigh University. “So they will wait, but this is going to be a difficult case to prosecute and win. I’m not sure everyone understands that given how complicated this version of the Stand Your Ground law is. It gives Zimmerman a lot of leeway, and Mr. Martin is not here to challenge his account.’’

Peterson pointed out that the 1990s Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King case occurred only after the police officers accused of beating King were found not guilty—and not before.

“If Zimmerman isn’t eventually arrested and sentenced, there could be problems, and I’m not sure Sanford is ready for that.’’

Asked if potential unrest in Sanford or elsewhere is a concern for the Martin family or their legal team, Crump says it is not.

“People have the right to express their complaints and their feelings however they feel is best,’’ he says. “We don’t want any problems, of course, but we also know that you have to demand what you want, and have to make those demands known. That’s the only way people listen, and the only way anything gets done.’’