How Neo-Nazis are running rule over Trayvon's town

As George Zimmerman is charged over the death of a black teenager, Guy Adams examines the simmering racial tensions in Sanford, Florida

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Despite prosecutors announcing last night that Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, will face criminal charges, the city where the killing took place feels ready to ignite.

Antony Antonio's lace-up army boots were glinting merrily in the streetlights as he strode through downtown Sanford. The heavily tattooed 33-year-old had driven two hours from Hernando County, on Florida's western coast, to reach this city north of Orlando. He intended to spend his night "on patrol" with volunteers from the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the nation's largest white supremacist group. "We're here because we got some calls from concerned citizens of the white community," he said.

Almost seven weeks after the unarmed schoolboy was shot as he walked home in one of the city's many gated communities, Sanford finds itself at the epicentre of a controversy bringing out the very ugliest in American racial politics. There are, according to the NSM, two dozen uniformed white supremacists "patrolling" the city in trucks and cars. Some (but not all) of them are carrying firearms.

For groups on the fringes of racial politics, Trayvon's killing has entrenched old divides. Black-power organisations say Sanford police's alleged mishandling of the investigation into the black teenager's death only confirms fears about institutional racism that they believe still exist among the forces of law and order. The white officers who questioned the half-Hispanic Mr Zimmerman believed him to also be white, they note, and seemed to take at face value his claim to have been acting in self defence. Police initially did not properly interview key witnesses, failed to test the suspect for alcohol or drugs, and set him free without either arresting him or filing criminal charges.

Defenders of Mr Zimmerman claim that he killed Trayvon in self-defence after being confronted and then attacked. Neither police 911 tapes nor witness accounts provide any concrete evidence that he was the aggressor in the 26 February incident, they argue, claiming the case is being exploited by the race-relations lobby.

Therein lies the basis for a polarising controversy. As anger grew last month, Mikhail Muhammad, leader of a small militant organisation called the New Black Panther Party, arrived in town saying that he was seeking up to 10,000 black men to form a militia to find Mr Zimmerman and administer what they regard as justice.

But the combative rhetoric, from both sides, will be weighing heavily on the shoulders of Angela Corey, the prosecutor who decided to press charges on Mr Zimmerman.