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Amid divisive protests in Sanford, a search for understanding

Garry Jones, left, of Atlanta and H. Alexander Duncan of Eatonville discuss the trial outside the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford.

Associated Press

Garry Jones, left, of Atlanta and H. Alexander Duncan of Eatonville discuss the trial outside the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford.

SANFORD – Inside the courthouse, the jury was deliberating. Outside, the protesters were yelling.

The folks on one side of the fence held signs that said SELF DEFENSE IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT! and GEORGE GOT HIT YOU MUST ACQUIT.

Those on the other side held signs that said JUSTICE 4 TRAYVON and END RACIAL OPPRESSION.

Alexander Duncan walked among them, shaking hands, no matter the shade of skin. He lives nearby, in Eatonville, but he has shown up here almost every day since jury selection began four weeks ago.

Not to protest. The issues this trial raises are too complicated to fit on a piece of poster board, he said. Shouting into a bullhorn won't solve problems.

"That's so 20th century," he said.

He has come to bear witness and, if possible, to strike up conversation. To talk. To listen. Because none of this is black and white.

He stopped to talk to a man holding a sign that said "Creepy Ass Cracker Is Racist."

"Why is that racist?" Duncan asked. The man wouldn't engage him. He mumbled something about the N-word being the same as "cracker." A heavy-set woman surged toward them both.

"We're not racist!" she shouted. "We're not racist!"

Duncan moved on. Shouting isn't talking.

He's 33, a third-generation Floridian. He knows the etymology of the word "cracker" here and that it, too, is complicated.

He grew up in mostly white schools with mostly white friends, so he's comfortable in both worlds.

When he was a boy, he noticed that his friend's father never spoke to him. He asked why. He doesn't like black people, his friend told him.

It hurt, but Duncan realized that his friend's father still opened the door and let him into the house.

In elementary school, a teacher told him he'd be in prison by the time he was 17. He cried, but the same teacher let him teach social studies for two weeks, an experience so profound it changed his life. Now he sits on the soil and water conservation board.

"People are people," he said. "A mix of good and bad and everything in between."

It's a different America than his grandfather experienced.

In 1936, Duncan said, he survived an attempted lynching. Most of his family fled, but his mother's branch stayed in Central Florida.

It's a different America than his parents experienced.

"They had to stand up and go through some horrific things during the civil rights movement for me to have the life that me and my siblings have had," he said.

So now, it's his turn.

He surprises people by saying he's a big fan of the Second Amendment and a member of the National Rifle Association. He tells them that many African Americans don't trust the justice system now because of a long history of mistreatment.

He tells them about the time he came home and found two teens sitting on his back patio. They started to mouth off until they saw the gun in his hand.

If he had shot the white intruders on his property, he asks, would the justice system treat him the same way it would a person with lighter skin?

If he mentions slavery or segregation, people tell him that's old news. Move on.

"Those are my forefathers," he said. "But I'm supposed to rave when they talk to me about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?"

He monitors his voice, and his speech, in conversation. If he gets too loud or heated, he said, he'll be labeled a radical or an activist.

We could all do a better job of understanding each other, he said. That's what brings him out.

"Too many people in my own family, let alone our forefathers, shed and gave up and made too many sacrifices for me to sit idly by," he said. "So if I can touch anybody with anything I say or do, hopefully it'll be for the best."

As the afternoon faded, the group of protesters swelled, their shouts growing louder, and police moved in to separate a man who had become irate. Duncan was a portrait of calm in a growing storm.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Amid divisive protests in Sanford, a search for understanding 07/13/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 1:39am]
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