'There's a race war going on': Nazis come to Trayvon Martin's town
The city where an innocent black teenager was killed is now a magnet for white supremacists. Guy Adams reports from a community in crisis
Say what you like about neo-Nazis, they certainly know how to exact a shine from black leather footwear. Antony Antonio’s lace-up army boots were glinting menacingly in the streetlights as he strode through Sanford late on Tuesday.
The heavily tattooed 33-year-old skinhead had driven two hours from Hernando County, on Florida's western coast, to reach this suddenly newsworthy city north of Orlando. He intended to spend his night "on patrol" with fellow 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 Sanford's white community," he said. "We're going to be doing patrols, driving and walking around, to make sure there's nothing violent going on, or anything getting out of hand. It's been on the news about a race war going on, and people are worried. So we want to be sure that white residents of the area feel safe."
The "race war" Mr Antonio was talking about involves the public's reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed as he walked through one of Sanford's many gated communities on the evening of 26 February.
Late last night, after weeks of protest and a controversy that has touched the nation and inspired commentary at every level of society, up to and including the White House, prosecutors announced that murder charges had finally been laid against Martin's killer, a neighbourhood-watch volunteer called George Zimmerman.
As America digested the news, Sanford braced itself for controversy. And if violence were to erupt on its streets, Mr Antonio and his colleagues, dressed in black faux-military outfits, intended to be there to pick up the pieces.
On Tuesday, his "unit" of two men and a woman had walked and driven around Sanford's residential neighbourhoods seeking to prevent "revenge attacks" on members of the white community. When they couldn't find any caucasians in need of protection, the group filled their time by distributing leaflets.
One such missive informed locals that "while you were sleeping" the NSM had been conducting a "neighbourhood watch" and "securing a future for white America". Another, plastered with swastikas, expounded on the organisation's policies; they involve being anti-drugs, anti-tax, anti-homosexuality and against "race mixing and non-white immigration".
As of today, there are, according to the NSM, roughly two-dozen uniformed white supremacists "patrolling" the city in trucks and cars. Some (but not all) of them are carrying firearms. They insist they are not looking for trouble, but are instead seeking to provide a counterbalance to the Black Panthers, a militant black-power organisation which arrived in Sanford a week ago.
Even before the prosecutor's press conference last night, the city felt ready to ignite. Earlier this week, shots had been fired into an empty police car parked near the scene of Martin's death. The following day, television interviewers asked local Mayor Jeff Triplett to sum up the mood on the streets. "Are we a kindling box?" he responded. "Sure!"
Mr Antonio's contribution to this merry civic atmosphere, during the time The Independent spent with him, included showing off his organisation's flag, which might have been designed in the era of Adolf Hitler, and teams the Stars and Stripes with swastikas.
At one point, Mr Antonio strode to a statue of an eagle on the waterfront opposite Sanford's City Hall. Then he unfurled the large banner and, in full view of several black passers-by, performed what he described as his "Sieg Heil", a Hitler salute. "We don't want to provoke, or to create havoc," he claimed.
Mr Antonio's colleagues declined to be interviewed or photographed, saying it could cost them their jobs. He had no such qualms. "I'm in construction and that isn't an issue. I joined NSM for a reason and, you know, I really don't mind showing people what I stand for."
On the other side of America's racial divide, extremist opponents of Antonio and his organisation are also publicly embracing an agenda.
Last week, Mikhail Muhammad, leader of a militant organisation called the New Black Panther Party, arrived in town saying that he was seeking 10,000 black men to form a militia to find Mr Zimmerman. He offered a bounty of $10,000 (£6,200). Asked whether he was inciting violence, Mr Muhammad said: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If the government won't do the job, we'll do it."
It was reading about those threats that inspired Jeff Schoep, the "commanding officer" of the NSM, to send his own foot soldiers, including Mr Antonio, into the town.
With charges now laid, court appearances to come, and a blockbuster trial several months away, Sanford is likely to inspire fiery rhetoric from Messrs Schoep, Muhammad and Antonio for a long time to come.
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