In Sanford, Fla., Zimmerman trial keeps a shaken community on edge
The Trayvon Martin shooting rocked Sanford, Fla., to its core. And with the murder trial of George Zimmerman now underway, the city is unnerved by the attention and fearful about the outcome.
Outwardly, Sanford, Fla., is “just an old Southern middle-class town,” where races may be segregated socially and culturally, but where most folks feel part of the same community, says resident Susan Mooty.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Florida vs. George Zimmerman: Case closed?
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That recent sense of community, shared by blacks as well as whites, was nevertheless hard-won, following, as it did, a racist history that famously included running Jackie Robinson out of town lest he play a spring training game with white players.
But the bullet that took the life of a black youth named Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, shattered that recent comity. In its stead, a palpable racial tension arose that lingers on these brick-laid streets more than a year after civil rights groups and the New Black Panthers crowded the riverwalk to protest the Sanford Police Department’s original decision not to arrest Trayvon’s killer, a local neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman.
After nationwide protests, Mr. Zimmerman ultimately was charged with second-degree murder, and today his face is on every TV screen in town as TV stations run live feeds from his trial.
“Look at this street: Usually everybody is out and about, walking around,” says Jimmy Franklin, an African-American former Marine, who lives in Sanford’s predominantly black Goldsboro neighborhood. “But everybody is inside, watching the trial on TV.”
Scrutiny of the case, meanwhile, is serving to air Americans’ attitudes toward racial stereotyping and discrimination – the trial has already featured testimony that Trayvon told a friend on the phone that a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him – as well as notions about self-defense and gun-carry regulations.
The real legacy of the Zimmerman trial, however, some historians go so far as to suggest, is its capacity to deliver a verdict that could either relieve some of America’s pent up tension around race or serve as the fuse of a racial powder keg, the last straw in decades of poverty, frustration and a sense of injustice in America’s poorer black communities, including the small peeling bungalows of Goldsboro, where faded “Justice for Trayvon” posters still hang in windows.
“The George Zimmerman trial is powerful because it’s defining the moment we’re in,” particularly with respect to racism and bigotry in the age of Obama, says George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “We see the same old dynamics emerging in a different guise, which is we have questions of hoodies, clothing, all these aesthetic issues that are ultimately about race. In that, the George Zimmerman trial can both explain what’s changed in [Sanford and around the country] but can also run the risk of obscuring … what’s really going on.”
More immediately, it’s hard not to say that the trial is challenging Sanford’s painful and circuitous road away from its Jim Crow history. The Trayvon Martin case and ensuing Zimmerman trial have deeply upset this city of 53,000 people. “This is a nightmare of community in terms of trying to come to terms with what’s happening,” says Gary Mormino, author of “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A social history of modern Florida.”
To be sure, there’s a sense here that this case could be playing out in any town, anywhere in America, not just in Sanford. “Everyone is trying to blow [the race question] up bigger than it is,” says Ms. Mooty, who is white.
In that way, painting the entire community of Sanford with a racist broad brush, as many feel that civil rights activists and the media have done, may be unfair.
“One way people are looking at this trial is as a reminder of deep-seated cultural fears that go back hundreds of years, where we can have laws and Supreme Court decisions, but it’s hard to change people’s hearts, especially people who have been separated culturally and legally for so long,” says Rebecca Watts, a professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., and author of “Contemporary Southern Identity: Community through Controversy.” “And even though legal separation technically isn’t there, people still live largely separated lives racially in a lot of the country, and the South is included in that.”