NAACP holds Sanford town hall at start of George Zimmerman trial

Hours after lawyers will give opening statements on Monday in one of the biggest trials in Sanford’s history, community leaders will host a town hall meeting at a church in the city’s historically black neighborhood to discuss the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a tragedy that has hung heavily over the city for more than a year.

The meeting is also about encouraging the community to act peacefully and responsibly throughout the court process.

The trial of George Zimmerman — charged with killing the Miami Gardens teenager in February 2012 — begins after 16 months of tension in a case that navigates the polarizing issues of race and gun control. The town hall, hosted by the NAACP, is a way to keep the public involved by providing details on the next chapter of the case.

“This is basically to update the community about what has happened, from the incident to the jury selection. We are here to explain the legal process so people have a better understanding of how this is going to happen,” said Turner Clayton, Jr., president of the Seminole County chapter of the NAACP. “We want to give people an opportunity to talk about what happened, to voice any concerns, but also we are continuing to advocate the idea of non-violence throughout this whole process.’’

The city of 53,000 just north of Orlando is still working to ease strained race relations after Zimmerman, a white Hispanic volunteer neighborhood watchman, shot Trayvon, an unarmed African American teen. The two had a violent confrontation in a Sanford townhouse complex. Zimmerman claims self-defense, saying he shot the 17-year-old only after Trayvon attacked him. He was eventually charged with second-degree murder.


But it was 44 days before Zimmerman’s arrest, a fact that sparked outrage and protests and marches, some led by national civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP’s Ben Jealous. Finally, Gov. Rick Scott appointed special prosecutors from Duval County.

The shooting cast a glaring spotlight on Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law as well, and tapped into the black community’s lingering resentment of the Sanford Police Department. It also provoked countless, often contentious, debates about the role race played in the incident.

“The mood here was very volatile. The feelings here were deeply rooted,” said Lowman Oliver, a community activist and pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford. “There was a lot of anger and there were even more questions.’’

Jury selection in the case began two weeks ago, with lawyers interviewing residents from Seminole County, probing their attitudes about gun control, race, faith and their exposure to the exhaustive media coverage of the case. In the end, the lawyers chose six women from a pool of 40. The jurors are mostly mothers, and all but one are white.


As part of an effort to help the city move forward, four seats in the courtroom have been set aside for a group of pastors to attend the trial. Their job: bring back to their neighborhoods and churches accurate accounts of the court proceedings. Some of those pastors, along with representatives from the NAACP, Urban League and Action Now Network, will attend Monday’s meeting to share their observations.

Martin family attorneys Ben Crump and Natalie Jackson will also attend.

“We will be there to answer any questions legally and to tell the community that we want peaceful justice,” Crump said.

The town hall will be held at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clayton said he expects some discussion of Stand Your Ground and gun control, but the main focus is on the trial.

“We know the community is going to be watching the case very closely, whether they are in the courtroom or watching on television,’’ Clayton said. “We planned this meeting for the beginning of the trial so everybody would have a basic understanding when it starts.”

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