Sanford, Fla., struggles to cope with Trayvon Martin killing

USA TODAY, October 17, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor


Photo credit: David Manning for USA TODAY

SANFORD, FLA. — Artificial flowers. A ceramic angel. A 4-foot cross bearing the image of Trayvon Martin.

They were once part of a makeshift memorial for Trayvon, shot to death in one of the nation’s most sensational killings of 2012. Now the items sit in limbo in a storage room at the Sanford city museum after some residents of the gated community where he died grew tired of seeing them.

What to do next with the items confuses this city as it ponders how to remember Trayvon, 17, and a shooting that thrust Sanford and its 54,000 residents into the center of a national story.

“You have people who want it moved and people who want to keep it,” said Francis Oliver, a longtime Sanford resident who thinks the memorial should not have been touched. “There’s the part that wants to move on and forget Trayvon Martin. But there’s not going to be any getting past it until the trial is over.”

That may be awhile. The case of George Zimmerman, 29, the man who shot Trayvon, has officials and residents bracing for a conclusion that probably will drag into 2013.

For months across the country, people — fixated on Trayvon, Zimmerman and this small Southern city — have debated about race, gun laws, and the meaning of self-defense. Sanford, a place once known for celery farms and a scenic coastline, is grappling with its future as two court hearings this week promise to thrust the city back into the headlines.

Today, prosecutors and Zimmerman’s defense team update newly appointed Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson on the state of the case at a docket sounding. Friday, the two sides will be back in court to discuss subpoenas and whether defense attorneys have the right to obtain Trayvon’s school records.

A trial date of June 10, 2013, was set by the judge Wednesday morning. Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, had said earlier that he didn’t expect the trial to occur this year. O’Mara plans to have a self-defense immunity hearing where the judge, if she believes Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense, could drop the charges.

Though neither hearing this week is likely to bring an end to the case, city officials plan to watch both and future court proceedings closely.

“At any given time, if a judge agrees to hold a hearing on any motion that can interrupt or permanently halt the case, I worry,” said Interim Sanford Police Chief Richard Myers. “The entire community and, in fact, beyond the community of Sanford is concerned about the outcome of this case. There are people who are concerned about any finding of guilt and any finding of not guilty or about having the charges dropped from a motion.”

Myers, who has been in office since May, hopes that before the case ends, the police department will repair some of its strained relationship with black residents and address the underlying issues that caused this case to become so controversial.

There’s been little progress in that direction and many residents remain distrustful of officers and city leaders, said Velma Williams, a Sanford city commissioner who represents Goldsboro, a majority black neighborhood.

She has been preparing her constituents for the case’s end and admits she is worried about how it will play out.

“I’ve tried to talk to people and say we live in a society in which the courts make decisions and you have to accept it,” Williams said. “I told people get ready, position yourself mentally to accept whatever the verdict is.”

Some Zimmerman supporters fear he might not get a fair trial in Sanford.

“People have been very polarized by this case, and there are a lot of heightened emotions around the racial issues,” O’Mara said. “It’s scary to be George Zimmerman trying to get a fair trial and to stay alive until you get there.” Race is not a factor in the case and should never have been made an issue, he says.

Zimmerman’s brother maintains that Trayvon reached for the gun and that Zimmerman was forced to shoot the teen.

“He stopped someone from disarming him and shooting him,” Robert Zimmerman Jr. told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “He didn’t pull out a gun and shoot him. George showed tremendous restraint.”

Memorial controversy

The story of the night of Feb. 26 is a familiar one now. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, and Trayvon, who was visiting the Retreat at Twin Lakes, got into a confrontation, and Zimmerman shot the unarmed teen.

Police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, who claimed he shot Trayvon after the teen repeatedly knocked his head into the concrete sidewalk. No charges were filed.

Trayvon’s family argued that Zimmerman racially profiled the teen and confronted him. The assertion led thousands — including Al Sharpton and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous — to call for Zimmerman’s arrest at rallies in the city in March.

In the wake of the outcry, a special prosecutor was assigned to the case and decided to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Zimmerman, out on bail, is in hiding after threats to his life and family.

Eight months after Trayvon’s death, tensions remain high, as several black residents view the removal of the teen’s memorial as a sign of further discrimination, Williams said.

“We have returned to a state of complacency and long-term distrust,” said Williams, who added that it’s hard to justify removing this memorial while allowing others in the city to remain standing.

Norton Bonaparte, Sanford’s city manager, said he ordered the memorial moved after residents of the area said the items — across from an elementary school — had been up long enough. Moving the memorial to the museum preserves the items while the city figures out what to do, he said.

“There’s no easy answer,” Bonaparte said. “We aren’t trying to forget about Trayvon Martin, but the shooting should not define what people think of Sanford.”

Oliver and others aren’t buying that argument. The narrative, for them, is as clear as it was in February. “The night Trayvon Martin was killed, you had the killer who confessed, and he just walked in one door and out the other,” she said. “This case brought out the injustice in Sanford. It was time for it to stop.”

Michael O’Brien, who runs The Corner Cafe downtown, said he won’t know what to think until a jury decides Zimmerman’s fate. “The final chapter on this has not been written,” he said. “There is a bit of a cloud over the city because it is unresolved.”

His customers rarely bring up the case in public conversations anymore, but there’s a sense that everyone is waiting for the courts to figure out what really happened, he said.

O’Brien sees the story of the case and the memorial ending two ways: Zimmerman is cleared of all wrongdoing, and Trayvon’s belongings go back to his parents without a memorial being built. Or Zimmerman is found guilty, and the city creates a permanent reminder for an unarmed teenager killed in cold blood.

“My sense is that the prudent move would be to preserve the elements of the memorial, and let’s see how the rest of this story plays out,” he said.

‘Make it A better city’

Now that the demonstrations gone and the story appears less frequently in headlines, many residents have tried to move on.

On the surface, Sanford looks normal. Weekly block parties have resumed, and residents stroll in and out of the downtown’s cafes, antique furniture stores and quirky bookstores. But people still quietly talk about the case.

“It’s the stuff you can’t see coming into Sanford,” Oliver said. It’s the tension between neighbors, classes and races, she said. There are also the periodic releases of new evidence, the public arguments by attorneys on both sides over everything from judges to school records, and the memorial debate. Each release seems to stir up feelings.

Bonaparte worries that the case obscures a full image of Sanford and its tourists attractions. He’s launched a campaign to present the city as beautiful — and normal — and is looking into running ads with scenes from the city’s boardwalk and beaches.

“We have the opportunity to make it a better city,” Bonaparte said. “In some minds, we are indelibly linked to Trayvon Martin, but that doesn’t stop us in also having people recognize Sanford as a great place to live and visit.”

West Seminole Boulevard is lined by a blue ocean and throngs of Lake Monroe fishermen who throw their lines past aging boardwalk planks. Across the city, Spanish moss drapes the branches of large green trees .

Sanford has problems that predate Trayvon’s death, Bonaparte said. The city struggled to balance its budget and provide services for residents. Home values have dropped, businesses have closed, and people have grown tired of panhandlers, he said.

The struggles show up right at the entrance to the city. The rust-colored brick and stone “Est. 1877 Sanford” arch welcomes visitors alongside a pale empty building with dark glass windows once occupied by a pharmacy. Closed gas stations, fast food restaurants, and large discount department stores line main streets.

As Zimmerman’s trial looms, Myers has sent police officers into neighborhoods to spend time with residents and earn their trust. Williams said more should be done, such as assigning officers to identify drug dealers and gang members in neighborhoods.

Many in Sanford will struggle for a while to really get back to normal, said Laurie Johnson, a counseling professor at Hofstra University in New York who has worked in New Orleans post-Katrina, in Lower Manhattan post-9/11 and in war-torn Bosnia.

“We’re built to assume that our lives and our communities will be basically safe,” she said. “When something occurs that is random, that creates travesty for people, and this assumption is shattered, when assumptions are shattered, life changes dramatically.”

Eventually, people confront their issues and life goes on, Johnson said.

Oliver doesn’t know when that day will come for Sanford.

“Our biggest hurdle is getting people to admit that Sanford has problems,” Oliver said. “People are calling for Sanford to heal, but they haven’t come to an agreement on what they need to be healed from.”