Trayvon Martin: America takes sides

That young black man Trayvon Martin was killed last year by white Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is not in dispute. But as Zimmerman’s trial begins today it may be harder to establish what represents justice

Sanford, Florida

Frank Taaffe ponders how fast the gated community here in Sanford where he bought his house seven years ago went to pot once the economy went south. Other buyers went into foreclosure or rented their homes out to strangers. Burglaries went up. A heroin ring was cracked by the police a few doors down.

“I could see the ambience here eroding,” Mr Taaffe, 56, says. “I don’t want to say darker, but that too.” Until a few months ago, the only gap in the perimeter fence around the community – “the Retreat at Twin Lakes” – was here right behind his house. “The scum that used to come through here…” he says, gesturing to the sliver of grass separating him from next door. “This was the corridor of crime.”

Mr Taaffe doesn’t mean to be racist discussing the trial that starts today of his friend, George Zimmerman, accused of murdering Trayvon Martin last year here at Twin Lakes. Zimmerman is white Hispanic while Trayvon, just 17, was black.

“There are cases of African-Americans being castigated because of the colour of their skin, I do believe that,” he acknowledges. It’s just that he thinks he knows better than most what happened here that February night.

Others in Sanford might tell you something similar. No town wants to be called racist. “We have been portrayed as some kind of racially charged city but that’s not the case,” City Manager Norton Bonaparte notes over coffee at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Sanford Zoo. “This was a tragic interaction between two individuals.”

But that, of course, is a sparse version of the truth and even Mr Bonaparte knows it. The reason this trial will be besieged by media crews from around the world has everything to do with the perception, at least, of racial  stereotyping. It’s also why everything is being done to get ready for when the verdict comes in – to keep Sanford from blowing up all over again.

The worst might actually be over. What ignited the African-Americans nearly 18 months ago and sparked Trayvon support rallies everywhere was the police decision to release Mr Zimmerman without charge soon after taking him in. He had belonged to the Twin Lakes Neighbourhood Watch, had seen Trayvon outside a house (Mr Taaffe’s, in fact), figured he was “up to no good” and given chase. He didn’t know the boy was staying in the house of his father’s girlfriend at Twin Lakes and was merely returning from a corner shop.

Most outrageous to some was the notion that he had been freed under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that says if you are facing possible lethal danger you are not obliged to try to flee and can act right there to save yourself. That means shooting your assailant if you have a permit to carry a weapon, which Mr Zimmerman did, without fear of prosecution. The African-American community saw a pattern.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” explains Francis Oliver, who runs the Goldsboro Historical Museum in a double-wide trailer in the worn down and mostly black Goldsboro section of Sanford. “They got the man who pulled the trigger, he admitted pulling the trigger and they had him in the police station. He tells them he stood his ground. You can’t stand your ground against a boy with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.”

As Mr Bonaparte, who is black, puts it at the Chamber breakfast, the killing of Trayvon Martin highlighted what “has not been resolved in America even going back to the lynchings. A white man shot and killed a black person and nothing happened, again. That’s what struck a chord.” Locally, he adds, “it was the like the removal of a scab that showed that the healing that should have happened had not”.

But that early boil of outrage has been partially lanced. Mr Zimmerman, 28, turned himself in and eventually was charged with second-degree murder. The then chief of police, Bill Lee, was sacked by Mr Bonaparte. (Mr Lee was white and his replacement is black.) In the spring of this year, lawyers for Mr Zimmerman said they would not use a Stand Your Ground defence. To some it is enough that the wheels of justice are finally turning as they should.

“It’s in God’s hands now,” says Frederick Turner, a Goldsboro resident, “but I can’t say the community is happy because a young black man died for no reason”. He also echoed many in voicing dismay at the attempts by the defence to introduce evidence, including records from his mobile phone, that disparage Trayvon as wayward at least, even a wannabe gangster with an enthusiasm for marijuana and violence.

“All that stuff doesn’t have nothing to do with what happened to him in those seconds, minutes and hours.” Even if the judge in the case refuses to admit it, the publicity around these claims is unlikely to have escaped potential jurors.

Jury selection begins today. When it is over and the trial proper begins, the nub will be determining exactly what happened in those “seconds and minutes” between Mr Zimmernan spying the teenager outside Mr Taaffe’s house and shooting him from close range.

We know a bit – for example that he got out of his car and pursued the youngster on foot through the neighbourhood. It’s on the tapes of his call with the police dispatcher, who asked: “Are you following him?” “Yeah,” he replied. “OK, we don’t need you to do that,” said the dispatcher. “OK,” Zimmerman said. But he followed him anyway.

The difficulty is that no one else actually witnessed that final, fatal confrontation at a bend on Twin Trees Road, about a minute from Mr Taaffe’s house if you are running quickly. Some residents phoned the emergency services and screaming is heard on the tapes of those calls but experts do not agree which of the two men is doing the screaming. Do the lacerations that were on the back of Mr Zimmerman’s head support his claim that it was Trayvon who turned on him and that he fired in self-defence? Or was Trayvon indeed the sole victim?

“It’s called ‘prevent-defence’ – it’s a football term,” say Mr Taaffe, who expects to be called as a witness by both sides. “That’s what [Zimmerman] did. He cared for his neighbours and for his community. He wasn’t profiling anyone… He wasn’t chasing anybody. How could it be Trayvon screaming? If it was me, I would have gone into ‘prevent-defence’.”

Indeed, Mr Taaffe, who is in internet marketing, is about as exasperated now as the Travyon Martin supporters were when Mr Zimmerman was first allowed to walk free.

“This case has become so polarised and the other side just don’t want to take the cotton wool out of their ears. Where is the common sense? What happened to common sense?”

As for the verdict he is in no doubt. “George Zimmerman will walk out a free man,” he predicts. “But he will have to spend the rest of his life either in hiding or trying to justify his actions.” Such are the passions of this case.

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