The Other Sanford

While Trayvon Martin’s killer remains free, Sanford’s black community seethes—and tries to make sense of it all.

Sanford, Florida rally for Trayvon Martin.
Supporters gather around a cross during a candelight vigil at a memorial to Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

SANFORD, Fla.—Johnny Holiday lifts the bike that he bought for $15, and he makes room for me on the bench. His day off was ending at Veterans Park, the sweet spot of Sanford’s Riverwalk. From our vantage point we could see clear across the lake, or we could turn and look at the area where civil rights leaders have been rallying for Trayvon Martin.

“It was wild, bro,” says Holiday. “You put yourself, a guy like me, in that mix, and you hear things. I got called ‘cracker,’ you know. ‘Skinhead.’ I got looked at funny.”

You can’t imagine anyone seriously messing with him. Holiday is tall, leathered, and built like a linebacker, biceps bulging in his T-shirt, veins bulging in his forearms. He was a Marine, served in Somalia, still wears his dog tags. And when he got to Sanford—a  pit stop, hopefully, before he makes enough money to head back to Panama—he stayed in a homeless shelter. Almost nobody else was white. But everybody got along.

“It’s different since [Zimmerman] shot that kid,” he says. “My friends that are black have a different outlook about me. I mean, why is that, bro? Was that guy even white? He was Hispanic, wasn’t he? Hell, I think they should probably try him for manslaughter.” Holiday lowers his voice, even though there’s not really anyone in earshot. “S—’s gonna go down if they don’t arrest that guy.” What does he mean? “Rodney King s—.”

To prove the point, Holiday tells me to meet him in Greensboro, Sanford’s oldest black neighborhood. To get there from the Riverwalk you go from First Street south to 13th Street. The $20 million of downtown renovations fade, and you head into a thicket of one-level homes. When you turn to get to Greensboro you pass the new Public Safety Complex, which houses both the police and fire department. It’s impressive enough that the architects who built it feature the complex in their portfolio—“concrete tilt wall construction with hurricane impact glazing throughout, designed to withstand 150 mph hurricane force winds.” This was where George Zimmerman was taken the night he killed Trayvon Martin. The sign welcoming you to Greensboro is only a block away.

Locally, the going theory is that the city moved the police department here to build up trust with black Sanfordians. It was a good idea. Greensboro was founded as an independent community for black farmers, who came here in the late 19th century to work celery fields. Sanford took it over, but Greensboro stayed segregated and separate. There are roads perpendicular to the city’s main drag, but they dead-end before they ever connect.

Holiday had been right about the tension. One of the first people I meet scans me up and down and looks at my notebook. “Write something down for me,” he says. “Get the f— out of here.” He’s an exception. The people stopping and shopping in the late afternoon are reluctant to talk, until they get a few sentences in. And then it sounds like they’re picking up on a monologue they started weeks ago, stopping to take breaths.

Jamelia Jarrells and Jakivia Franklin talk about the killing as customers stroll in and out of the convenience store where they work. There’s no air conditioning, and the door’s constantly open, so most of the lights stay off while the fans stay on.

“I thought Zimmerman should have been arrested that night,” says Jarrells. “Regardless of the fact of whether or not he thought he was defending someone, he killed someone. Even if they arrested him, and he got out that same night, I think people would have felt better.”

The story makes less sense as they try to put it together. “Even if they arrest you for some little infraction,’ says Franklin, “you’ll be there all night. This is a murder! Somebody got killed. This is a murder. Everybody jumps up and down. Who is he, if he only spends an hour there? What title does he have? Who’s in his family?”

There are two unmistakable differences between the Trayvon conversations you have in other parts of Seminole County, and the conversations you have in the black community. The first is a level of detail. Everyone’s heard of this case, but Greensboro people can go into the timing and meaning of each news break. The 911 calls. The spinning of the 911 calls. The counterattack in the Orlando Sentinel about Martin’s suspension from school after he was caught with an empty marijuana baggie. Gregory Mills, jobless with a long rap sheet, talks about NBC apparently blowing it on an edit of the 911 call, making Zimmerman look fiendishly racist.

The other difference: Here, every day that Zimmerman isn’t arrested spawns fresh new theories and doubts. You hear rumors. Local hospitals have told employees not to take their vacations this week. Police are ordering riot gear. Mills suggests that there are “too many organizations” in the town, and that Zimmerman had connections that saved him. Some rumors are tied to crimes that actually were investigated, but you hear other stories of mysterious killings that the police never touched. There’s an ad in the latest Sanford Herald with the name of a cold case murder victim and a suggestion to call for a new investigation. “There’s MORE to this story than what was told.”

Greensboro has optimists, but they’re realistic about what other people think. Even if Zimmerman’s arrested, says Franklin, “it took too long.” Not for her, necessarily. Maybe for C.J. Williams, a club promoter, who paces back and forth cursing and ranting about the police’s conduct.

“If I killed you in self-defense, that means you were f—ing with me,” he says. “I’m not going to hide for three days. I’m going to come out and tell you why. A motherf—er who sits home and cries for three days, and won’t come out and talk—he’s guilty.” He points at me, then Holiday. “If I shot somebody who looked like you, or you, shit, I’d be on death row.”

“If he was a white 17-year-old,” says Jarrells, “he wouldn’t have been shot.”

Rashid Abdul Rahman, a retiree, chimes in. “Since we’re in central Florida,” he says, “and there’s so many movements coming through here, it’s going to be OK. If we was in California, they’d be burning this up.”

Burning what up?

“The city!”

They worry about it, and they don’t want to see the anger boil over. But Rahman isn’t bothered about the Stand Your Ground law, which city authorities cited early on as the reason they let Zimmerman go. He is just bothered by how the law is being used.

“It’s the interpretation of the law,” he says, dragging on a cigarette. “Right now it depends on who it’s being applied to. They need to amend that law so there’s justice for everybody.”

Williams eventually finds his calm.

“I’d like to see Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson do this, do their hoopla, when a white kid got shot,” he says. “If Al Sharpton did that, his image would improve, you know? If people thought he’d do this for any person who’s been wronged.”

His point is that this killing and this story are sui generis. There’s scrutiny, the Sanford police are no longer in charge of the investigation, and people outside the city are paying attention to something that would otherwise pass right through the news cycle—black kid dead, looked suspicious.

The next day, a car pulls up to a home on 14th Street and a gunman fires 30 shots into a crowd. It’s a few blocks away from where Williams talked to me about Trayvon Martin.