Monday morning a jury of six women will begin hearing the case of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, who claims self-defense. Every case hinges on its particulars, but focusing on one event blurs the bigger picture.
Over the past 16 months, before a single piece of evidence was introduced, Sanford became the dateline of America’s 21st-century scrimmage with race. Goldsboro, burdened by unresolved murders of its young men, adopted Trayvon as one of its own. A month after the killing, the Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that Sanford could become a latter-day Selma, the Alabama town where the white establishment turned its police dogs loose on peaceful civil-rights marchers.
Sanford is not that. Sanford is a brick-paved main street lined with antique shops. Sanford is a forlorn acreage of shuttered housing projects whose closure scattered residents across town. Sanford is a small galaxy of gated communities with names like “Plantation Lakes” and “Hatteras Sound.”
Which Sanford was Trayvon visiting in February 2012? Which Sanford was Zimmerman protecting, or protecting against?
This is a Sanford story, to be sure, but its themes are more universal, and its beginning and end exist outside the bounds of a trial.
A town with a past
Its longtime nickname has been “The Friendly City,” and its features follow suit. Lake Monroe sparkles across Fort Mellon Park. Spanish moss veils the restored Florida Craftsman homes of Sanford’s historic district. Residents call it homespun yet upscale, folksy and artsy, a college town without a college and, as a T-shirt slogan goes, “a historical town with a drinking problem.” Or is it “a drinking town with a historical problem”?
Sanford’s history was written by celery and citrus, through waterways and land grabs. The Seminole Indians were battled out of Florida by U.S. soldiers in the first half of the 19th century. Diplomat Henry Shelton Sanford purchased 23 square miles of central Florida land in 1870 and incorporated his namesake city on Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River, a vital commercial route to Jacksonville and the Atlantic. Zora Neale Hurston, daughter of Eatonville and Sanford, wrote of the river having “catfish as long as a man” in her 1942 autobiography.
At the top of the second inning during an April 1946 minor-league baseball game between the Montreal Royals and the St. Paul Saints, Sanford’s police chief ordered Jackie Robinson out of the game. Cities across America each shoulder their own incidents of high-profile racism, and Robinson’s expulsion is Sanford’s. It was officially unpacked a half-century later, when then-mayor Larry A. Dale issued a 1997 proclamation that apologized for “the regrettable actions born of that era” and declared that “such evidence of racial prejudice is no longer accepted or tolerated in this community.”
Sanford today is a city of 54,000, 57 percent white and 30 percent black. Its average household income ($52,000) is half that of neighboring city Lake Mary and $30,000 less than that of Seminole County, named for the people who were first run off the land. Its quaint commercial district on First Street is an organic version of the artificial drive-in shopping centers sprawled across suburban America.
But this era can’t shake the actions born of that era.
“People still talk about the Jackie Robinson thing,” says Sanford police chief Cecil Smith, an African-American, who was installed three months ago after the previous chief resigned. “People still talk about ‘friends of mine who were pulled over 10 years ago.’ People relate what happened last year [with Trayvon] to that.”
And people still talk about what happened to Goldsboro, founded in 1891 as Florida’s second “all-Negro” town after Eatonville. Goldsboro then had its own government, post office and thriving commercial corridor. In order to spread westward, Sanford scotched Goldsboro’s charter in 1911 and absorbed it. Black businesses and services closed. Streets named after Goldsboro’s founders were assigned numbers instead. One people’s ground became another’s, and no one’s forgotten it.
Climate of unease
One hundred and two years after Goldsboro lost its independence, a woman who introduces herself as Ms. Payne sits on her porch in the heart of the neighborhood, between Avocado and Pecan avenues. Within her reach are menthol 305’s, Doublemint gum and a sure sense of past and present, law and lawlessness. She has family on the police force, she says, and family who’ve been in jail.
“Trayvon and Zimmerman did not separate this town,” says Ms. Payne, who describes herself as a homemaker born in the late ’50s. “There was separation before.”
Goldsboro residents have to go elsewhere for decent parks and pools, she says. The Sanford police have stoked tension by treating everyone like criminals, she says, and Goldsboro youth are guilty of acting wild or violent. Trayvon’s death, occuring in another kind of Sanford, transcended homegrown crime that’s black-on-black, Ms. Payne says. Two people made decisions that resulted in a tragedy, and then everyone “took the humanity out of it and filled it with racism,” she says. “It takes your soul, the breath out your body.”
Sanford police officer Josh Strobridge, a white man wearing black Oakley sunglasses, cycles up the driveway.
“Where you been, honey?” Ms. Payne calls out.
“Hey mama, they got me on lockdown,” the officer says, kickstanding his bike and taking a seat on the porch to catch up.
“Everything going okay?”
“Yeah, it’s been nice and quiet.”
Last year, it wasn’t. Just over a month after Travyon’s death, hundreds of residents marched to the Sanford Police Station, on Historic Goldsboro Boulevard, to demand Zimmerman’s arrest. The city created a blue-ribbon panel to assess the community’s relationship with the police. The panel’s report, published earlier this month, found that the Sanford police department is underfunded and understaffed, that it must develop a “closer relationship” with Goldsboro, that inconsistent enforcement of the law “may be manifesting in a racially-based dynamic.” This May, Sanford officers underwent “fair and mpartial” training to divest themselves of any bias, subconscious or otherwise, and began doing “walk-and-talks” in the community. To some residents, this amounted to a performance for the media. To the police, this is the first step to establishing trust.
Goldsboro — just across Route 17/92 from the quaint downtown — is “oppressed, depressed and suppressed” says Pastor Valarie Houston, a co-chair of the blue-ribbon anel who leads a congregation of 432 active members at Allen Chapel AME Church in Goldsboro. Trayvon’s death was fuel for self-empowerment, and a rallying point to address broader issues.
“We were crying but no one was listening,” Houston says. Before Trayvon, “we had no reason as a whole, as a people — whether low- or high-income, educated or uneducated — to come together.”
The neighborhood came together to march and to build a memorial, just down the street from the police department, as a commitment to keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
That picture reveals a link between Goldsboro and Travyon beyond the memorial. The center of Goldsboro is occupied by five boarded-up housing projects, some of which date to the 1950s and look like pastel-colored Army barracks. They were closed in 2010 and 2011 because of substandard or unlivable conditions: black mold, rodent infestation, collapsing ceilings. With 483 housing units suddenly gone, an entire community of low-income African-American families migrated outward into greater Sanford; 42 households from the Goldsboro projects relocated into seven of Sanford’s 25 gated communities, including the Retreat at Twin Lakes, according to records from the Orlando Housing Authority. Many homeowners in the Retreat had already applied to rent to Section 8 tenants after the housing market crashed in 2008, says Sanford city commissioner Patty Mahany.
One people’s ground seemed to become another’s, as residents settled into communities beyond the segregated projects. Some connect this mini-migration to a climate of unease, in which it became more common for one Sanfordite to look at another as if he didn’t belong. Francis Oliver, curator of the Goldsboro Historical Museum, makes this connection. Mahany, the white commissioner of the more affluent district where Travyon was killed, makes this connection.
“It had introduced into that community people from different walks of life, and there was a period of time when burglaries and break-ins were quite high at Retreat at Twin Lakes,” says Mahany, who lives a quarter mile from where Trayvon was shot. “That may indirectly or directly have contributed to what happened.”
But the crux of the matter, she notes, isn’t “where it happened or why it happened or that it happened. I think it was that Zimmerman was not arrested immediately.”
Two mayors, one past and one present, are lunching at a restaurant on the edge of Goldsboro as the first week of jury selection concludes in the Zimmerman trial.
Mayor Jeff Triplett has the double cheeseburger. Former mayor Brady Lessard has the grilled chicken sandwich with collard greens. Both have the opinion that the long-standing distrust between the police and the African American community — inflamed by Zimmerman’s delayed arrest — does not mean Sanford is any more troubled or any less diverse than another U.S. city.
“Look at this place,” Triplett says, nodding to the other clientele. “Look around.”
A 20-something black man and his toddler-aged daughter are in the next booth over. Across the way are three men: one white and one black, both construction workers, and one Hispanic wearing what appears to be nurses’ scrubs. The two white mayors blend in here because no one really looks like anyone else. The same is true at the city’s monthly “Alive After 5” street party downtown, where young and old, black and white, rich and poor mingle on First Street. There, you can see hipsters in John Waters T-shirts, rednecks in patchy overalls, tattooed bikers rolling up to the blues bar, bejeweled women pushing tiny dogs in strollers, a man wearing a Confederate flag bandana standing next to a charging station for electric vehicles, and the town’s resident drag queen having dinner with his husband.
“These media people decrying stereotyping and profiling — all these things that ‘aren’t allowed’ — that’s what they did to the city of Sanford,” Triplett says.
Lessard, a civil engineer who left office in 2005, asks how many people were hurt or killed by gun violence in Chicago the previous weekend (two dead, 17 injured). “What’s lost in this is incidents are happening like this every day,” he says.
“Black-on-black crime, white-on-black crime — it’s killing in general,” Triplett says. “Neighbors killing neighbors.”
After Trayvon’s death, Lessard says, “not one of the protests or marches had to do with gun control.”
The marches last year were peaceful and constructive, but the way the media covered them stoked an anxiety that lingers to this day, says longtime local businesswoman Sara Jacobson, who owns commercial property downtown and says that restaurants have reported cancellations because people fear what might happen after a verdict.
Jacobson, like many other residents interviewed earlier this month, thinks that the rest of the country is imposing its own fears and prejudices on Sanford, whose singling out is both unjust and illuminating.
“We’ve had other people die and get killed here and nothing happened, black or white, and there’ve been several serious shootings since [Trayvon’s] and you don’t hear about them, and I wonder, ‘Is this fair?’ ” says Jacobson, 75, a white Sanford native on the phone from her home on Lake Monroe. “How in the world does this case earn the importance to be taken to Al Sharpton’s level, and internationally?”
She pauses, working through the conundrum that Sanfordites have been trying to articulate in the glare of the national spotlight.
“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.