More than a year ago, black leaders and activists took to the streets throughout Florida and the nation to protest the Sanford police’s investigation of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and push for the prosecution of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
With the jury in Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial expected to start deliberating Friday, many of those same leaders — church elders and community activists — are now joining hands with law enforcement officials in Sanford, South Florida and elsewhere to urge people to remain calm if Zimmerman is found not guilty.
“We’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out what our role should be in this, how to keep the peace and if it turns out the worst case scenario what our next moves should be,” said Derek Turner, spokesman for the NAACP, which coincidentally is holding its annual convention in Orlando, not far from the trial, this weekend. “We’re all in the back of our minds waiting on edge to hear a verdict.”
Zimmerman, who is half-Hispanic, shot Martin, a hoodie-wearing black 17-year-old who was unarmed, on a drizzly Feb. 26 night in a gated community near Orlando. Citing Florida’s stand-your-ground law, however, Sanford police originally did not charge Zimmerman.
Only after social media outrage and civil rights protests alleging racial profiling and discrimination did Gov. Rick Scott appoint a special prosecutor, who brought the charges against Zimmerman six weeks after the shooting.
Zimmerman’s defense before and during the trial has been that he fired the gun in self-defense.
Around-the-clock television coverage of the trial has heightened anticipation about the verdict, and anxiety by some about what the reaction will be to it. Authorities have tagged more than 1 million tweets per day related to the trial as it reached its climax this week.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel released a video this week pleading with people to “raise their voices, not their hands” and to remain calm. Israel and his staff met with black pastors and community leaders on Tuesday to enlist their aid in avoiding violence after the verdict.
“We have no reason to believe there are going to be any issues but forewarned is forearmed,” Israel said.
In Miami Gardens, where Trayvon Martin lived with his mother, Sybrina Fulton, police, lawyers and community leaders also held a pre-emptive forum this week, as they did throughout Miami-Dade County, where the 1980 acquittal of four Miami-Dade police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie sparked riots in Overtown and Liberty City.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s office has been monitoring the trial as well as what other agencies are doing but does not anticipate problems and has no special plans for the verdict, spokeswoman Teri Barbera said Wednesday.
“We’re keeping our lines of communication open with our community leaders, our civic activists, the members of the clergy, as well as our local, state and federal agencies,” she said. “We’re ready to react if necessary but I don’t know that we feel that it’s imminent at this time. We’re not seeing the hype that they’re seeing in Seminole, Broward and Miami-Dade.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s office is “in contact with law enforcement throughout Florida to ensure they have the resources needed to keep Floridians safe,” the governor’s spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said.
In Sanford, Police Chief Cecil Smith is intensifying outreach in black neighborhoods and the U.S. Department of Justice will be on hand after the trial ends, Mayor Jeff Triplett said. Justice Department officials have worked with Sanford officials since last year to try to ease race relations, Triplett said.
Pointing out that there were no arrests and no violence at last year’s peaceful demonstrations when hundreds of protesters, led by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, marched through Sanford’s streets to demand the arrest of Zimmerman, Triplett said he doesn’t anticipate any problems now.
But he said, “You always have the anxiety of these butterflies in your stomach of the ‘what ifs.’I would hate to think it would take on a different vibe than what we’ve seen in the past.”
He said his biggest worry is outsiders coming in and causing trouble.
“You never know what someone’s going to do when they think they’re on film or on camera or they’ve come to a place for one specific purpose and they know nothing else about anything…That’s always a fear. We had that fear last year. That is what keeps me awake at night. Someone coming to our town and saying, ‘watch this.’”
State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the Miami Gardens district where Martin’s mother lives, has participated in community meetings. He said there may be more peaceful demonstrations but riots are “a thing of the past.”
“I believe that we’re past that type of action. I do believe there will be an outcry if people feel that justice wasn’t served. People have seen actual movement and results from the type of actions they did in the beginning of this Trayvon Martin issue. So I think people will revert back to that, protests, walk-outs, things like that if there’s a verdict they don’t feel is serving justice.”
The NAACP has facilitated about 10 town hall meetings throughout the state, including in Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Walton Beach, and is working closely with local law enforcement officials and church leaders, said state NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze.
The trial also will be a focus of the convention with guests including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, the lawyer of Martin’s parents.
“I believe that if we do our work on the front end that our communities will definitely work to keep the kind of calmness and peace while dealing directly with the issue head on,” Nweze said. “The family has called for peace. “It just would not work to our best advantage to get justice if we interfere with justice.”
While the Zimmerman’s trial for many blacks represents inequities beyond his individual case, “we can’t make the whole issue of race relations depend on it,” Nweze said.
In an appearance on Sharpton’s MSNBC show Wednesday evening, Crump joined Sharpton in appealing for calm following the verdict.
“(The family) have always prayed for and asked for peaceful gestures…because if they can accept the rule of law, then they (others) should be able to,” Crump said.
But Crump also said that whatever the verdict, it will create “a precedent one way or the other.”
“Anybody who kills a child is going to be accountable or you can kill certain teenage children of certain ethnicities and nobody is going to be held accountable.”