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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.

J.C. withheld his name because he wanted to “be real about this” and say what would happen if Zimmerman wasn’t arrested. “Anywhere he goes he’s dead,” he says. “I’m sorry. That’s how it is. He knows what he did is wrong. That’s why he’s hiding.” This was just a fact, not anything he was proud of. “We’re standing up. We’re not takin’ this no more. If I go to some apartment, I look like I look, am I getting shot?”

It’s only a short walk from there to Maya Books and Music, a local institution that’s been featured in a happy-shiny ad about Central Florida commerce and in some less-happy local news stories about whether the town’s reputation is ruined. The proprietress, Yvette Comeau, wears shorts and a Beatles T-shirt as she moves around the stock. This is a slow day. The days when protesters take over downtown are especially slow.

She’s a little fed up with the attention. The crime scene was “near the mall,” far from where most people live. (The site of the killing, in a gated community, has been plumbed for significance that could absolve people who live and work in more organic places. Twin Lakes is a block of identical homes. Downtown Sanford has parks and electric-car plug-ins.) “Al Sharpton tossed a lit match on a pile of kindling,” she harrumphs. “This is between the people it involves and their close relations. This is a matter for justice, not vigilantism, even if the guy Zimmerman did act in a vigilante way.”

Maya Books is just a short walk from city hall and the office of City Manager Norton Bonaparte. He’s running a little late for an interview, so the public information officer, Lisa Mosca, lets me into the meeting room. It overlooks the marina, with a gorgeous view of Lake Monroe.

“Look at that,” she says, sweeping her arm in front of the window. “That’s why people come to Sanford. You can forget that with all the hoopla. This is a city of 53,000 people, and the focus right now is on two individuals.”

Bonaparte arrives for his fourth reporter chat of the day. (His sixth will come when he goes on MSNBC at 10 p.m.) He’s a Haitian-American who wears monogrammed shirts and a poker face that only moves when he decides that something is darkly funny. He’s fond of taut answers, better if they can be shrunk into one sentence. He’s the most powerful black official in the city, and his grandchildren go to school across from the gated community where Martin was killed. He’s the public face of Sanford, as far as cable news is concerned. You can see why.

“The night of Feb. 26 was a very unfortunate, tragic interaction between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman,” he says. “That’s two individuals in a city of 53,000. In a city of 53,000, two individuals who interacted in a tragic way. That’s not Sanford. I took my two grandchildren up to Fort Mellon Park yesterday.” This was where the rallies had been held on other days. “That’s the real Sanford.”

Bonaparte has only lived in Sanford, in this role, for six and a half months. He’s a professional urban manager who’s held this job in New Jersey and Kansas, too. Hearing his city trashed by the national tastemakers? Nothing new. “In Topeka, there’s the Westboro Baptist Church,” he says, referring to the cultish sect that picket funerals with GOD HATES FAGS signs. “Topeka, sometimes, was painted as the home of the Westboro Baptist Church. How in the world could we stand having that church there? Well, in a city of 127,000, what 10 people did, did not define the city.”

That was a crazed First Amendment story, hard to resolve unless the church lost its land lease. There is a way to end the “new Selma” story. “We want justice,” says Bonaparte. “We want it thoroughly investigated outside of the Sanford Police Department.” Justice only means that the state’s attorney, DOJ, FBI, and everyone else carries out full investigations and make their calls. It’ll help when the city conducts a quick, sensitive search and finds a new police chief to replace Bill Lee, whose stepping down two weeks ago calmed things. “We’re also talking to the Justice Department about the best practices to follow,” says Bonaparte.

This is the takeaway: The city is doing what it can. The rallies have been peaceful. The police issues have been curbed. On Monday the police sent out an alert that reporters would be arrested if they followed public officials home; the bulletin was rescinded. This is not Selma.

“The fact that there was a shooting of a 17-year-old is tragic,” Bonaparte says. “It happens in other places. I don’t know for sure—you seem rather knowledgeable—but was there a shooting yesterday in Chicago? In New York? In L.A.? I suspect that there may have been. How come that’s not getting national attention?”

The reason is that George Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested. Until that happens, the city can’t shake the reputation. The most it can hope for is that the frenzy ebbs a little, that the news trucks park somewhere else.

On Monday night, there’s hope in the local press. An experimental plane crashes into a Publix supermarket in DeLand, another city in the Orlando media orbit. Tuesday’s paper has a package of stories about Zimmerman, but it’s not leading the paper. The headline, with photo, is:

PLANE HITS SUPERMARKET

It takes up all the space above the fold.

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