To this day, the only facts everyone in town agrees on are these: A white police officer arrested two African Americans — a teenage girl and a Town Council member — during a dispute on a street corner in the city’s predominantly black South End neighborhood.
It was one of hundreds of episodes that have periodically engulfed U.S. cities and towns, triggering angry protests and wrenching self-examination. Most of these incidents never achieve national prominence. Instead, they unearth dormant tensions within a local community that serve as a reminder of the nation’s uncomfortable struggle to bridge racial divides.
Less clear is what happens after the demonstrations die down, and there are no more community meetings, and justice is served or not, and the dialogue ends.
In the case of Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old fatally shot Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., the immediate question is whether authorities will charge Zimmerman with a crime. But in the long term, there is worry that nothing more — no new sensibility, no new understanding — will develop from the incident.
“After all of that happens, we as a society too often return to a place of complacency,” said Nicole M. Austin-Hillery, director-counsel for the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan social-justice organization. “We don’t use these moments to move forward and ask, ‘How do we as a society look at a group of people?’ Race is the big taboo that everybody runs away from.”
In the days and weeks that followed the arrests in Stratford, African American residents, joined by members of the state NAACP, marched on the town hall, calling for justice for council member Alvin O’Neal and Titasheen Mitchell, the 14-year-old girl. O’Neal was trying to stop the girl’s arrest, he said, after he saw the officer body slam her on his patrol car and punch her twice in the face.
Whites from the northern part of the city wondered whether the story had been sensationalized. The police officer, Cpl. David Gugliotti — who disputed O’Neal’s and Mitchell’s accounts — was cleared of any wrongdoing after a police inquiry.
More than a dozen onlookers and police officers witnessed the arrests, but they did not agree on what they saw.
O’Neal and Mitchell portrayed Gugliotti as a foul-mouthed racist, a characterization seen by many people in the South End as typical of an overly aggressive police department. Many other people in town — and Gugliotti’s colleagues, of all races — saw him as an upstanding officer doing a tough job.