BY KARSCEAL TURNER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
Sixteen months after Trayvon Martin’s death and in wake of the trial of the man who took the 17-year-old’s life, all is relatively calm in Sanford.
Ironically, a brisk walk into the oldest Black neighborhood in Sanford begins at the police station located at 815 Historic Goldsboro Ave. Half a block down sits Goldsboro’s Welcome Center, where a memorial for Trayvon Martin and other victims of gun violence now sits.
Francis Oliver, curator of the Goldsboro Historical Museum, said earlier this month that the area is pretty calm – weeks before the trial, which begins June 10.
“This is an atmosphere of waiting to see what will transpire, but the wounds run far deeper and reach further into the past,” she said. Oliver said mistrust between the once all-Black town and the police has always been prevalent.
“The city has wounds older than Trayvon,” she added.
In February, she was quoted in an Orlando Sentinel article about the memorial, “We should remember Trayvon, but we should not forget about all the other kids that have been victims of crime.’’
Enter Cecil Smith. He is the new police chief. And he’s Black.
Upon his swearing in April, this was his defining statement: “I can’t tolerate racism within the police department. I can’t tolerate people being harassed by police officers.”
That statement was in response to taking over a department that one year ago was called racist and incompetent for choosing not to arrest George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old over a year ago.
Smith came to Sanford from Elgin, Ill., where he was the police department’s deputy chief. He succeeded Bill Lee, who was fired in June 2012 following the national outrage over the Sanford police department’s handling of the shooting death of Martin.
The teen’s shooting sparked rallies around the country, including one on March 22, 2012 that attracted 8,000 people to Sanford to hear the Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, Martin’s parents and others demand Zimmerman’s arrest.
James Alexander, 41, a member of a Masonic lodge in Sanford, offered his insight.
“Things right now are calm,” he said. “People are watching the trial closely to see what happens; they still recall the day that the shooting made national news. A lot of us still stand with Trayvon Martin’s family and pray that justice will be served.”
Alexander echoed the sentiment of distrust between Black residents and the Sanford Police Department.
“True distrust remains between the cops and citizens. They (the police) love the city and its people. But we as a people feel slighted by what’s going on and I think the incident with Trayvon added fuel to the fire in some respects,” Alexander explained.
“We’ve have had the police come out to our (Masonic) events and help out. The police force is comprised of a lot of great people who were just as shocked by this situation but they cannot express that to the public. They have to follow the rule of the law and keep peace. I think people should know the law and empower themselves.”
‘Knock and Talk’
Many of the residents of the minority community were at odds with law enforcement facilities in close proximity to their neighborhood.
“To me it was a great step in building the community but as a people we tend to distrust the police for past deeds. I think it takes more than having an African-American police chief to squash the distrust. I think people need to believe that they can communicate with the police and not feel stereotyped by them. I think everyone in the town agrees that this is a tragedy and are just waiting for the case to be over,” he added.
One of Smith’s first tasks involved walking door to door during a “Knock and Talk” to help build up a relationship with residents. He visited neighborhoods all over Sanford in an attempt to get officers out of their squad cars and change the department’s image in a neighborhood where many residents have grown openly hostile to police.
“Since the new chief was installed, we’re giving him a chance,” said Prophetess C. Philemon, another Goldsboro resident. “He knows there is a trust issue and is willing to attempt to bring the community together. Many of us were happy to see some sort of development in the area because it is usually blighted.”
No trial delay
Seminole County NAACP head Turner Clayton said the organization doesn’t anticipate any unrest or riotous behavior from the minority community and isn’t sure that NAACP representatives will be in the courtroom for the June trial. “We haven’t planned anything as of yet,” Clayton said. “We don’t want to do anything which may impede the judicial process.”
On Tuesday, a judge ruled that Zimmerman’s second-degree murder case will proceed to trial June 10 despite his defense team’s request for a delay.
Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson made the announcement during a two-hour hearing Tuesday morning at the Seminole County Courthouse.
The judge also ruled that the defense may not bring up Martin’s past marijuana use at trial, or his school suspension or alleged participation in fights, without clearing several legal hurdles and another ruling granting permission.
The rulings came days after Zimmerman’s defense posted photos and text messages online gathered from the slain teen’s phone. The phone included texts about being a fighter, smoking marijuana and being ordered to move out of his home by his mother.