“What are the people in New York seeing or feeling — that I don’t understand — that’s making them rally? . . . This is not just a black-white rally; this is a rally to make an international statement. Why is this little town in this little case capturing that, then?”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Jacobson says, “[but] I think there must still be enough problems out there, and enough — what’s the word? — enough negativism, moreso than prejudice. . . . And I think it’s opening some eyes. I don’t just automatically say ‘leave us alone.’ There’s gotta be a reason why this.”
‘Lost in the shuffle’
A purple banner is strung between two trees in Judith Brown’s front yard in Goldsboro.
Its first line of text is “Justice for.”
A passing driver might assume its second line is “Trayvon.”
It’s not. It’s “Brian Jamal Robinson.”
Brown’s 24-year-old son went missing the afternoon of Nov. 3, 2011. That night his body was found in a wooded area in the next county over. Eighteen months later, his death ruled a homicide, no arrests have been made. Brown can’t help but weigh the attention drawn by Trayvon’s killing with the inattention given to her son’s, despite the difference in circumstances. Her son had a criminal record, with charges including burglary and battery, though he’d never been given jail time. A new father who was also caring for his ailing grandparents, he was getting his life together, says Brown. Then, as she understands it, he was abducted and killed by other young men who suspected him of stealing their drugs. Now his name is one of the nine on Goldsboro’s Trayvon memorial.
“We should be going to trial right now,” says Brown, 48. “Brian’s death has kind of got lost in the shuffle of Trayvon. . . . We have Trayvon, and I understand that. But Sanford is still hurting from other young men we have lost.”
The nation came to Sanford and demanded justice, and the system kicked into gear. Zimmerman is now on trial. In the case of Robinson’s death, there are “persons of interest” but the system appears to have stalled.
Brown and other Goldsboro residents say that’s because the Sanford police department considers black-on-black crime to be a given, an immutable fact of life in America. Brown says Sanford and the sheriffs of Volusia County, where her son’s body was found, did not collaborate in the early days, allowed the case to grow colder, diverted their attention to address the national scrutiny invited by the decision to not arrest Zimmerman.
Investigators say that someone in Goldsboro has information that could lead to an arrest, that the community needs to meet them halfway on cases such as Robinson’s.
“It drives me crazy, coming from a community that was a little more open, to one that is like prying the bars off a bank,” says Sanford police chief Smith, whose previous post was in Elgin, Ill. “Our detectives have been working diligently on the cases that are there, but you hit a brick wall when you run into the people who are there and they shut down. Family members don’t want to talk about who pulled the trigger. It becomes a huge double standard. We want to help you, but you have to help us help you.”
Brown, who was born and raised in Sanford, acknowledges that it goes both ways.
“The police department could’ve done a better job, and you have a lot of people in this community who won’t even speak, and they know things,” she says. “They’re afraid.”
Brown calls this pervasive mistrust and fear “hurtful.”
That’s part of this Sanford story, about a present afflicted by the past. Where does the story start, and where does it end?
Maybe it starts with Jackie Robinson, and ends with Brian Robinson.
Maybe it starts with the displacement of a people, and ends with one person awakening the suspicion of another.
Maybe it starts with the names on the Travyon Martin memorial, and hasn’t ended yet.