Sanford adjusts to new normal

SANFORD — One year after the shooting of Trayvon Martin thrust this small Central Florida city into the national spotlight, life in Sanford is returning to its regular rhythm.

After the death of the black 17-year-old at the hands of a neighborhood watch leader, civil rights leaders warned that Sanford risked its reputation as an upscale Mayberry and could become a 21st century version of civil rights flashpoints like Selma, Ala.

It seems Mayberry won out — at least for now. Downtown is abuzz with the activity of First Street shops and restaurants, not the sounds of marching protesters. Literature lovers peruse Maya Books & Music. Craft beers are poured at the Imperial, a bar that doubles as a furniture store.

But beneath the usual pace of life lurks the memory of what happened a year ago Tuesday in a nearby gated community.

Civil rights leaders said that if Martin had been white, the neighborhood watch leader, George Zimmerman, would have been arrested the night of the shooting. Zimmerman's father is white, and his mother is Hispanic.

In the weeks after the shooting, thousands of people marched through Sanford, demanding Zimmerman's arrest. T-shirts and posters of Martin sold rapidly on Sanford streets. The police chief lost his job.

The protests stopped after Jacksonville prosecutor Angela Corey took over the investigation and filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman a month and a half after Martin's shooting. Zimmerman, whose trial is set for June, has pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense.

At the height of the protests last March, national civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP's Ben Jealous had vowed to turn Martin's shooting into a movement addressing equal justice under the law, as well as "stand your ground" laws that allow people to use deadly force if their lives are in danger. While those issues have retreated somewhat in the national discussion, they haven't in Sanford, where race relations and concerns about traditionally underrepresented communities have moved to the forefront.

"It's on our minds all the time," said City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black.

Since the arrest, Sanford leaders have taken steps they hope ease racial tensions in the city of 53,000 residents, more than a quarter of whom are African-American. Officials have held a series of community meetings in the predominantly black neighborhood of Goldsboro, established a community relations office, and appointed a human relations commission and a panel to review police-community relations.

"Out of tragedy comes opportunity," said Mayor Jeff Triplett, who is white. "There was a scab over the wound of race relations, and this event opened it up."

Residents of Sanford's historically black neighborhoods say that for the most part, they are encouraged by the dialogue that has emerged with city officials.

But officials are aware that protests and racial tension could return during Zimmerman's June trial or April self-defense hearing. It's then that a judge will decide whether his defense argument is sufficient to allow for the case to be dismissed. Weighing on local leaders' minds are the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of three police officers in the beating of Rodney King. "History has shown it can happen if people feel justice isn't served," Bonaparte said.

Sanford adjusts to new normal 02/24/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 24, 2013 10:16pm]

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