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Zimmerman trial keeps a shaken community on edge

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.”

Yet Florida, and Sanford, just north of Orlando, have a unique racial history, in part because the state doesn’t have its own slave heritage since it was settled largely after the Civil War. Even today, there are as many Northern transplants as Southerners in most Florida cities (Sanford’s population has grown by 40 percent since 2000 alone), all of which hasn’t stopped the occasional race riots across the last 80 years in places like Tampa, Ocoee, and, most recently, Miami in 1980.

While Sanford’s history museum doesn’t gloss over the city’s racist past, featuring a display documenting Robinson’s mistreatment, it does give more prominent treatment to documenting the area’s Swedish immigrants, who quickly rose to become civic stalwarts while founding the community of New Uppsala.

Arguing that racist attitudes persist, many locals say, is as ridiculous as arguing that the city’s namesake, Henry Sanford, is still relevant to the discussion because of his plan to return US blacks to the Congo, which he called “[t]he ground to draw the gathering electricity from the black cloud spreading over the Southern states.”

But after Trayvon’s killing last year, Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black, acknowledged the feeling among many residents that, had the situation been reversed and Zimmerman was black, he would have ended up in jail. Police said they were forced to let Zimmerman go when they couldn’t disprove his self-defense claim.

In subsequent NAACP hearings, one speaker, Hannibal Duncan, noted the pervasiveness of that feeling in black America, as reported by Reuters: “You can go from town to town, city to city, and you could pack churches like this with African-Americans, explaining that this is just a part of their everyday life.”

Moreover, while Florida was in part settled by whites who drove mule teams down from Georgia, modern Florida is polyglot, as evidenced by Zimmerman’s German last name but Hispanic heritage, and testimony from Rachel Jeantel, who is of Creole descent. Teasing out purely racial stereotyping, experts say, becomes complicated, if not impossible, in such a melting pot state.

“The South is not a simple place anymore, and this is a trial defined by complexity,” says Mr. Mormino, who’s also a professor at the University of South Florida, in St. Petersburg.

Trayvon Martin’s utterance of “creepy-ass cracker” and Zimmerman’s seething “These assholes always get away” comment on a 911 tape, suggest that racial acrimony persists.

But if violence sprung from racialized fears and dislike between Zimmerman and Martin, could it happen to a whole community?

That question epitomizes the distinct pins and needles feeling in Sanford today, where visitors now ask if this little riverside city is “safe” to visit, where police acknowledge they’ve become “the most hated police force in America,” and where carpenter Jim Groves suggests that people are “packing” for a not-guilty verdict – and not “packing” as in taking a trip either, but packing as in “packing heat.”

The Zimmerman trial concluded its first week of testimony on Friday. A jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman – five of them mothers – are hearing a case that comes down to a few murky moments when a black teenager and a part-Hispanic man wrestled and fought on the ground at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, arguably Sanford’s nicest neighborhood, before a gun went off and the unarmed Trayvon Martin, with $40 and a bag of Skittles in his pocket, died.

While the trial itself seems to illustrate America’s stubborn racial divides, some US political experts say its outcome could equally illuminate a different post-2008 clash in America. On one side is the old civil rights guard claiming that institutional bigotry still persists. On the other are more conservative Americans emboldened by the election of a black president to frame the Zimmerman trial as a test not of racial attitudes, but of constitutional guarantees of one’s right to protect one’s home and property.

“This is a moment of sort of creeping dissatisfaction and frustration where people are realizing that very little has changed under a black president, and there’s nothing that contributes more to unrest than dashed expectations – the idea that things were going to change and the sudden realization that they haven’t,” says Mr. Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University.