Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Federal 'peacemaker' acts to mend Sanford's racial tensions

SANFORD — Trouble was brewing in Sanford.

An African-American teen was dead, shot in the chest. The shooter, a neighborhood watch captain, said he acted in self-defense. The black community, long weary of the Police Department, was demanding an arrest. There was talk of protests and marches. National civil rights leaders had taken up the cause. The media were descending.

Suddenly, the tiny Central Florida city, just north of Orlando, was being cast as racially troubled.

So in the weeks after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a city representative picked up the phone and called Thomas Battles, a quiet force who has worked for almost three decades to mend racially damaged communities.

The mediator works for the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, a stealth federal operation that works to defuse community anger hardening along the fault lines of race, color and national origin.

The mediators are called "peacemakers."

"There was so much angst and fear of the unknown," Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett said one afternoon just after the start of the murder trial of George Zimmerman. "We had never been through something like this before. We didn't know what was going to happen and if this thing was going to blow. Mr. Battles has a calming way about him. He was a voice of reason. He got everybody to the table.''

Battles, Southeastern director of the Community Relations Service, worked with city and civic leaders to allow the protests but in peaceful manner. He helped the city create a nine-point plan to improve race and police relations, and rallied the city's faith community to help guide the healing.

Now with the Zimmerman trial expected to end in the next week or so, Battles, based in Atlanta, is likely headed back to Sanford to make sure the verdict — acquittal or conviction — does not incite violence. By department policy, Battles does not give media interviews.

"He and his staff largely operate out of the spotlight doing very important, very necessary work,'' said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Battles and his team have received training. "They are going to cities like Sanford that are torn apart by a racial rift, put in an international spotlight. These are places that need help quickly.''

• • •

The Community Relations Service was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to foster peace in communities riven by conflicts stemming from race, color and national origin. It is the only federal agency dedicated to working with state and local officials and community groups in "restoring racial stability and harmony."

Battles, a Florida A&M University graduate, became a regional director in 2003 — overseeing eight states, including Florida — after working for more than two decades as the senior conciliation specialist in the Miami field office.

He has been involved with several high-profile cases that contributed to sinister chapters in the nation's race narrative. In 1998, he headed to Jasper, Texas, after three white men dragged a black man to his death behind their pickup truck.

In 2006, he made the trip to Jena, La., as the town became the site of a massive civil rights conflict. Six black students known as the "Jena Six" were charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was severely beaten.

And he was involved with peace efforts during the Elián González custody saga, a case that tested ethnic relations in the city after the boy arrived by boat on Thanksgiving Day, 1999.

• • •

Back in February 2012, Martin was visiting his father in Sanford while on suspension from a Miami high school. The unarmed teen was returning from a convenience store that Sunday night when he and Zimmerman had an explosive confrontation that left Martin dead, Zimmerman claiming self-defense and a city of 53,000 suddenly thrust into the center of the tragedy.

Blacks, who had long felt mistreated by the Sanford Police Department, saw in Martin another case of mistreatment by law enforcement.

"The mood here was very volatile. The feelings here were deeply rooted,'' said Lowman Oliver, a pastor and community activist. "There was a lot of anger, and there were even more questions.''

City leaders turned to Battles.

Among his first tasks, Battles rallied about 80 Sanford area ministers of varying races and faiths to talk about the role they should play in bringing peace back to the city.

Sanford Pastors Connecting formed. With Battles' help, members of that group now have four designated seats at the trial to bring back reports to their congregations and neighborhoods. Battles has often been there, too.

On the evening of the first day of testimony, the NAACP hosted a forum for residents at an area church to update the case and call for calm after the trial. One by one, pastors and civic leaders came to the podium in front of a mostly black crowd.

Battles sat quietly in a pew.

"He is always neutral. He does not go into a crisis on one side or the other,'' Oliver said. "His job is to walk the middle and try to find common ground and common solutions.''

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