SANFORD, Fla. — When the Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally of thousands here last month, he told city leaders that they “risked going down as the Selma or Birmingham of the 21st century” unless George Zimmerman was arrested.
On Thursday, with Zimmerman behind bars, many here were wondering when they would get their reputation back.
“There’s not all this racialism, like everyone’s saying,” said Beth Rollf, who is white and owns downtown’s Taste of Thyme Cafe. “There are no riots. People need to know Sanford for what it is: a quaint, artsy town with a lot to offer.”
Whether Sanford will be scrubbed from the list of American cities with an ignominious racial past was just one of the unresolved issues reverberating the day after Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, turned himself in to authorities, charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The Feb. 26 killing changed this city of about 53,000 from a little-known former celery hub into a place many Americans now associate with a racially fraught American tragedy.
Many hope that with the arrest, the news vans and out-of-town activists will go away and let things return to normal. But many others, who suspect that latent racism has long skewed the local justice system, ask whether the old normal is really worth going back to.
They wonder whether Zimmerman’s trial will be held here in Seminole County, and whether it will be another wall-to-wall media spectacle, akin to the Casey Anthony trial last year in Orlando.
And they wonder what would happen if a jury were to acquit Zimmerman. Does the city, so tense before the charges were announced Wednesday, still run the risk of racial unrest?
“Even though there’s a deep sigh of relief, that’s what’s still sitting out there,” Mayor Jeff Triplett said somewhat wearily Thursday, feet propped on his City Hall desk. From here on out, Triplett said, Sanford would need to take some “healing steps,” particularly addressing the lingering mistrust in some quarters about minorities, police and the courts.
On the brick-paved streets of the revitalized downtown, there was a vague sense that an unpleasant chapter may be closing. Tourists browsed antique stores, and workers prepared for a city-sponsored monthly block party. Most of the news trucks were six miles away at the county jail, covering Zimmerman’s first court appearance — a brief proceeding in which the suspect, clad in a gray jumpsuit, simply said “Yes, sir” when asked whether he understood the charges.
Judge Mark E. Herr found probable cause to move ahead with the case, setting an arraignment for May 29, at which Zimmerman is expected to plead not guilty. An affidavit filed Thursday by prosecutors, while disclosing little new evidence, said “Zimmerman confronted Martin,” apparently contradicting the suspect’s version of what happened.
At the White Cup Coffeehouse downtown, owners Wayne and Elizabeth Reichert said they were hoping for justice — but also hoping for their business to come back. Wayne Reichert, who hosts open mic nights and music shows, said his business depended on teenagers, who have avoided the city center of late during the news of angry rallies and mounting racial tension.
“My concern is that [the case] is dealt with fairly, and we get back to some sense of normalcy — for my own sake,” he said.
Reichert said he was glad Zimmerman had been arrested because the facts could come out in court. It is a common sentiment among white residents — one reason they are frustrated that Sharpton would lump them together with the likes of midcentury Selma, Ala. Indeed, defiance of small-town Southern attitudes is easy to find: at the Barn, Sanford’s premier country music venue, the marquee this week proclaimed, “Praying for the Martin family.”
The feelings among African Americans are equally complex, and their predictions for Sanford’s future contradictory. Rashid Rahman, 47, an unemployed resident of the historically black Goldsboro neighborhood, said the city could explode if Zimmerman was not convicted.
“It’s gonna be some riots,” he said Thursday. “This ain’t the end. It’s just the beginning.”
But Jermaine Ferguson, an African American pastor at Sanford’s Spirit of Truth Worship Ministries, countered: “I don’t think it’s going to be like that. He got arrested. People are happy.”
However, the decision to arrest Zimmerman by special prosecutor Angela Corey has its critics.
Greg Kopp, 57, a retired UPS worker, said he thought local police were correct not to arrest Zimmerman because of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows residents to use deadly force if confronted with a deadly threat. Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in self-defense.
Kopp, who is white, was upset that Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. was forced to step down after pressure from national activists mounted for Zimmerman’s arrest, and after a slim majority of City Council members dealt him a no-confidence vote.
Sharpton and other activists, Kopp said, were “just itching to find a way to bring back that ‘60s feeling, and they found it. … Basically, it’s mob rule in Sanford right now. The mob comes down here, and everybody caves in.”
Police leadership is another issue the city will have to confront. Nearly 1,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the reinstatement of Lee, who is white. The acting chief, Capt. Darren Scott, is black.
But C.J. Blancett, a leader in the push to reinstate the chief, says it has nothing to do with race, noting with a laugh that she is a black woman.
The racial prism through which the case has been viewed elsewhere tends to befuddle some. Rachel Delinski, editor of the biweekly Sanford Herald, thinks the tragedy might be best understood not in terms of American racial attitudes, but rather as an example of an overextended police force finding itself confronted with a complicated homicide case.
“This is a small-town police department,” she said. “This is what we have to deal with.”
Some white residents said they didn’t recognize their city as described by the national media, particularly when reports emphasized its racial problems. That sentiment does not seem so widespread among black residents.
Ferguson, the pastor, said black residents “wanted the light exposing whatever the problems have been” — specifically the long-standing contention that blacks and whites have not been equal before the law.
Ferguson was sitting outside a Goldsboro community center Thursday, waiting to attend a special meeting of his fellow preachers. The topic was the future of Sanford — and how it might be shaped by the people who live in it.
“We know that once those cameras are gone, and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are gone … we’ll be here,” he said. “And we’ve got to bring forth healing.”
Orlando Sentinel staff writers Rene Stutzman and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.