After Trayvon Martin’s death, Is Sanford’s Black Community on the Edge?

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April 4 2012 9:12 PM

The Other Sanford

While Trayvon Martin’s killer remains free, Sanford’s black community seethes—and tries to make sense of it all.

Sanford, Florida rally for Trayvon Martin.
Supporters gather around a cross during a candelight vigil at a memorial to Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

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

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

SANFORD, Fla.—Johnny Holiday lifts the bike that he bought for $15, and he makes room for me on the bench. His day off was ending at Veterans Park, the sweet spot of Sanford’s Riverwalk. From our vantage point we could see clear across the lake, or we could turn and look at the area where civil rights leaders have been rallying for Trayvon Martin.

“It was wild, bro,” says Holiday. “You put yourself, a guy like me, in that mix, and you hear things. I got called ‘cracker,’ you know. ‘Skinhead.’ I got looked at funny.”

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You can’t imagine anyone seriously messing with him. Holiday is tall, leathered, and built like a linebacker, biceps bulging in his T-shirt, veins bulging in his forearms. He was a Marine, served in Somalia, still wears his dog tags. And when he got to Sanford—a  pit stop, hopefully, before he makes enough money to head back to Panama—he stayed in a homeless shelter. Almost nobody else was white. But everybody got along.

“It’s different since [Zimmerman] shot that kid,” he says. “My friends that are black have a different outlook about me. I mean, why is that, bro? Was that guy even white? He was Hispanic, wasn’t he? Hell, I think they should probably try him for manslaughter.” Holiday lowers his voice, even though there’s not really anyone in earshot. “S---’s gonna go down if they don’t arrest that guy.” What does he mean? “Rodney King s---.”

To prove the point, Holiday tells me to meet him in Greensboro, Sanford’s oldest black neighborhood. To get there from the Riverwalk you go from First Street south to 13th Street. The $20 million of downtown renovations fade, and you head into a thicket of one-level homes. When you turn to get to Greensboro you pass the new Public Safety Complex, which houses both the police and fire department. It’s impressive enough that the architects who built it feature the complex in their portfolio—“concrete tilt wall construction with hurricane impact glazing throughout, designed to withstand 150 mph hurricane force winds.” This was where George Zimmerman was taken the night he killed Trayvon Martin. The sign welcoming you to Greensboro is only a block away.

Locally, the going theory is that the city moved the police department here to build up trust with black Sanfordians. It was a good idea. Greensboro was founded as an independent community for black farmers, who came here in the late 19th century to work celery fields. Sanford took it over, but Greensboro stayed segregated and separate. There are roads perpendicular to the city’s main drag, but they dead-end before they ever connect.

Holiday had been right about the tension. One of the first people I meet scans me up and down and looks at my notebook. “Write something down for me,” he says. “Get the f--- out of here.” He’s an exception. The people stopping and shopping in the late afternoon are reluctant to talk, until they get a few sentences in. And then it sounds like they’re picking up on a monologue they started weeks ago, stopping to take breaths.

Jamelia Jarrells and Jakivia Franklin talk about the killing as customers stroll in and out of the convenience store where they work. There’s no air conditioning, and the door’s constantly open, so most of the lights stay off while the fans stay on.