Sanford mayor Jeff Triplett was at his oldest son’s football game in Tampa, about 100 miles away from the city he leads, when he got the call one evening in March 2012 that tension was mounting over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Two weeks before, a sudden, explosive confrontation between a neighborhood watch volunteer and the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager had ended with Trayvon dead with a bullet in his chest and George Zimmerman defending his actions. And now, in the early spring of 2012, the city of Sanford was churning at the center of national narrative built, in part, upon the fault lines of race. In a matter of weeks, the quaint city in the northern shadows of Orlando had become a dateline for social unrest, for the consequences of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground Law and for the historic mistrust between police and black communities.
“It was a whirlwind. It had reached a boiling point. It was surreal,’’ said Triplett, a banker and part-time mayor who took a leave of absence to help manage the crisis. “The story has been characterized as the scab being pulled off an old wound in our community. I like to believe that out of tragedy came an opportunity for our city to have some discussions, to listen to our people. We are really working hard to go down this path together.’’
Sixteen months after the shooting, on the eve of Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial, Triplett and other leaders talk cautiously about the long road of racial healing, all the steps taken to reunite — or unite — the community, from new commissions to pastor-led talks to a new police chief personally knocking on the doors of residents as a way of introduction. They hope the ambitious, city-wide effort has made Sanford resilient enough to withstand the scrutiny that comes with reliving the ugliest details Trayvon’s death in a high-profile, racially-sensitive trial that is likely to stretch into summer.
Part of that strategy has been turning to the city’s spiritual leaders to defuse simmering racial tension and guide the city to reconciliation. With the start of the trial, they will add courtroom observer to their role. About a dozen pastors, part of a larger group of clergy, are working with the U.S. Department of Justice and Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and will attend the trial each day, then report back to their congregations and the public. The pastors, representing an ethnic and denominational cross-section of the area, will rotate among four reserved seats in the courtroom.
“We are going to be a witness, watch how the system works, watch the case unfold and share that,’’ says Rev. Charles Holt, of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in neighboring Lake Mary. “The role of the clergy in this case is to call on the community to be responsible in its response. This case and trial has the ability to divide.”
It already has.
Last February, Zimmerman, 29, and Trayvon, 17, encountered each other in a gated townhouse community as the teenager returned from a convenience store. He was there visiting his father while suspended from high school. Zimmerman, who was not arrested for another six weeks after the shooting, has always maintained he acted self-defense, that he shot his 9 mm semiautomatic gun during a violent, fatal struggle. The state is arguing Zimmerman followed Trayvon and shot him without cause.