Is Sanford, Florida the New Selma, Alabama?

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April 3 2012 7:05 PM

The New Selma?

The death of Trayvon Martin has given Sanford, Fla. a bad name.

Photograph for Slate by David Weigel.
A sign in Sanford, Fla. Since Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, the city's reputation has suffered

Photograph for Slate by David Weigel.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

SANFORD, Fla.—McRobert’s Auto Center, a 54-year-old shop on the outskirts of downtown, has one of those movie-theater-style marquees with bold letters, perfect for slogans. On one side, the sign advertises tire-balancing service. On the other side—the side you see driving in from the suburbs—it reads SANFORD IS STILL A GOOD LITTLE TOWN.

It means what you think it means. Mark Carli, who’s worked here for four years, is sick of media frenzies, sick of marches, sick of race-baiting.

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“I’m sympathetic that there was a life taken,” he says. “Central Florida’s just gotten over the—what was it, the Susan B. Anthony thing?” He’s trying to remember the murder case that gripped Orlando last year. “Sorry, no, Casey Anthony. My understanding of the problem there was that they jumped to conclusions and it hurt the prosecution.”

The similarities between that mess and this mess: front pages full of grim details, endless after-work conversations about something everybody’s sick to think about, TV trucks and camera crews occupying the grass outside city hall. The difference: For Sanford, this case is much, much worse. You’ve got Al Sharpton flying in, leading marches, warning that Sanford could be “the Birmingham and Selma of the 21st century,” and you’re listening to reports about how “racial tensions run through Sanford’s roots.” Carli, who’s white, knows that Sanford’s got a vibrant, “great” group of black people. So knock off the “Selma” stuff already.

“I don’t see it as a racial thing,” says Carli. “They’ve spun it to be a racial thing. It’s just unfortunate … the NAACP has had an office in this town since the 1960s. They’ve been active in this town, and never in a good way.”

He’s not blaming the NAACP for what happened. No one blames them. Spokespeople for the city have taken up a sort of mantra, the first sentence in every media conversation: This is about the actions of two individuals in a city of 53,000 people. The victim, Trayvon Martin, was in town visiting his father’s fiancée at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. Taking this, making it about the sins of Sanford—it’s not fair.

Only now are people starting to clear their throats and say it. Linda Kuhn, the city’s previous mayor, had brushed off calls from reporters. She saved her ire for an op-ed in the Sanford Herald, attacking the current mayor for “go[ing] against the advice of the state attorney” and releasing the 911 tapes of the Martin killing.

“[Mayor] Jeff Triplett’s decisions have been dictated by a few outsiders,” Kuhn wrote. “I have yet to hear him be outraged or even defend ‘his city’ when Ben Jealous, head of the national NAACP, went on Meet the Press this past Sunday and stated that the KKK was alive and well in Sanford. … Sanford was on the precipice of changing its long-standing negative image.”

Negative, sure, but never as bad as this. There was the time in the late 1970s when the city responded to an order to desegregate a swimming pool by filling the pool in—it would remain segregated, or nobody would use it. In 2006, 16-year-old Travares McGill was shot three times by a security guard. The final bullet went through McGill’s back and into his heart. The guard lied about it, and wasn’t charged right away. In 2010, a police officer’s son named Justin Collison punched a homeless man and didn’t even get cuffed. But at least there the city got a new police chief, and at least Collison was eventually charged. George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, hasn’t been charged with anything. That’s where the “new Selma” line comes in.

Turning into the national symbol of racial discord is costly. Head over to Twin Lakes, which is a good 10 minutes from the center of town, and you see police cars on constant watch. Last Monday, the city moved its biweekly public meeting from the usual location to the Sanford Civic Center, with the overflow crowd following the proceedings on a JumboTron. The total cost: $30,611. This was where Sharpton made the “Selma” comment.

Sharpton’s words irritated the city. So did the rumor that he’d lead a boycott of the city. He was playing around with some very real, fresh tension and mistrust. If you can take a walk without hearing some anti-Zimmerman, anti-cop sentiment, you haven’t walked very far. On Monday afternoon, a black electrician who would only give his initials, J.C., waited for a bar called the Alley to open up. He was watching out for two homeless black men who’d been matter-of-factly urged to leave by a bodega owner holding up a garden hose.

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