Trouble was brewing in Sanford.
An African-American teen was dead, shot in the chest. The shooter, a neighborhood watch captain, said he acted in self-defense. The black community, long wary of the police department, was demanding an arrest. There was talk of protests and marches. National civil rights leaders had taken up the cause. The media was descending, bringing its harsh spotlight.
Quite suddenly, the tiny Central Florida city, just north of Orlando, was being cast by some as racially troubled.
So in the weeks after the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a city representative picked up the phone and called Thomas Battles, a quiet force who has worked almost three decades mending racially damaged communities.
The federal mediator works for the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service (CRS), a stealth federal operation that works to defuse community anger hardening along the fault lines of race, color and national origin.
The mediators are called the peacemakers.
“There was so much angst and fear of the unknown,” said Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett one afternoon just after the start of the murder trial of George Zimmerman, accused in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. “We had never been through something like this before. We didn’t know what was going to happen and if this thing was going to blow. Mr. Battles has a calming way about him. He was a voice of reason. He got everybody to the table.’’
Battles, southeastern regional director of the CRS, acted as a trusted third party, gathering opposing factions to address the simmering tension by developing reconciliation strategies. He worked with city and civic leaders to allow the protests, but in peaceful manner. He also worked with the city to create its nine-point plan that aims to improve race and police relations, and tapped into the city’s faith community to help guide the healing.
Now, with the Zimmerman trial expected to end in the next week or so, Battles, based in Atlanta, is likely headed back to Sanford to make sure the verdict — acquittal or conviction — does not incite violence. By department policy, Battles does not give media interviews.
“Like all our conciliators, Thomas Battles goes into a heated community to be supportive, to listen and mediate and to slow things down for people,’’ said Grande Lum, director of the CRS. “They help to create reasonable conversations.’’
Reserved and discreet, yet engaging and well-connected, Battles and his team were dispatched to the city as the shooting was making national headlines — to assist without drawing attention to themselves.
“He and his staff largely operate out of the spotlight doing very important, very necessary work,’’ said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Battles and his team have received training. “They are going to cities like Sanford that are torn apart by a racial rift, put in an international spotlight. These are places that need help quickly.’’
The CRS was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to act as a “peacemaker” in communities with tension from race, color and national origin-related conflicts. It is the only federal agency dedicated to working with state, local officials as well as community groups in, “restoring racial stability and harmony.” Four years ago, the agency’s mission was broadened to include hate crimes related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability.
Battles, a graduate of Florida A&M University, became a regional director in 2003 — overseeing eight states including Florida — after working more than two decades as the senior conciliation specialist in the Miami field office. The Miami City Commission passed a resolution declaring Dec. 12, 2002, as “Thomas Battles Day” in recognition of his years of service in improving relations between racial and ethnic groups in South Florida.
He has been involved with several high-profile cases that contributed to dark chapters in the nation’s race narrative: In 1998, he headed to Jasper, Texas, after three white men dragged a black man to his death behind their pickup trucks.
In 2006, he made the trip to Jena, La., as the small town became the site of a massive civil rights conflict when six black students known as the “Jena Six” were charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was severely beaten.
“If you see Thomas, you know there is a problem,’’ said Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney who worked with Battles on a case in Panama City several years ago. “But if you see him, you also know there is going to be a solution. His mission is always to keep the peace.’’
In Florida, his mediation footprint includes helping to coordinate sensitivity training workshops at a Pembroke Pines school when a group of students hung a noose as a joke in 2008. Years before, he worked with the Haitian exile community after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, was overthrown in 1991. And he was involved with peace efforts during the Elián González custody saga, a case that tested ethnic relations in the city after the boy arrived by boat on Thanksgiving Day, 1999. Months later, the U.S. government seized Elián from his relatives and returned him to his father in Cuba.
“During the Elián case, Thomas was a steady person, working hard to see the different sides of the issue and getting everyone to the table. There was great respect for him in the Cuban-American community,’’ said Guarione Diaz, president emeritus of the Cuban American National Council who was working with Battles to address the tension when Elián was removed. “We were having a lot of community conversations about how to keep violence from erupting.’’
Back in February 2012, Trayvon was visiting his father in Sanford while on suspension from a Miami high school. The unarmed teen was returning from a convenience store that Sunday night, when he and Zimmerman had an explosive confrontation that left Trayvon dead, Zimmerman claiming self-defense and a city of 53,000 suddenly thrust into the center of the tragedy.
Blacks, who had long felt mistreated by the Sanford Police Department, saw in Trayvon another case of mistreatment by law enforcement, and his death quickly became to symbolize racial injustice.
“The mood here was very volatile. The feelings here were deeply rooted,’’ said Lowman Oliver, a pastor and community activist. “There was a lot of anger and there were even more questions.’’
As city leaders worked to answer those questions and calm residents, they turned to Battles.
“The situation was escalating. We needed somebody from the outside that could command respect, pull the community together and generate dialogue,’’ said Andrew Thomas, the senior project manager for the city of Sanford who made the initial contact. “He and his team were very effective.’’
Among his first tasks: Battles rallied about 70 or 80 Sanford-area ministers — of varying races and faiths — and talked to the group about the role they should play in bringing peace back to the city.
“The idea was to bring different kinds of people into the same room and get them to talk,’’ said Rev. Charles Holt, of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in neighboring Lake Mary. “He was able to get the largest group of pastors together, partly because his group carried weight, representing the perspective of the Justice Department.’’
From those meetings, the Sanford Pastors Connecting was formed. With Battle’s help, members of that group now have four designated seats at the trial for pastors to attend and bring back reports to their congregations and neighborhoods. Often, Battles is seen there too.
His team also negotiated police protection for the Dream Defenders, a group of students who walked 40 miles from Daytona to Sanford in a “justice for Trayvon” protest.
On the evening of the first day of testimony, the NAACP hosted a town hall for residents at an area church to update them on the case and call for calm after the trial, particularly if Zimmerman is acquitted. One by one, pastors and civic leaders came to the podium in front of a mostly black crowd.
Battles sat quietly in a side pew.
“He is always neutral. He does not go into a crisis on one side or the other,’’ Oliver said. “His job is to walk the middle and try to find common ground and common solutions.’’