SANFORD, Fla. — Large pockets of this city were quiet on Sunday but for the sounds of black choirs spilling from 11 a.m. church services and chatter among neighbors on front porches and street corners. There were no protests or rallies. No scorched earth or angry mobs as some had feared and law enforcement had prepared for.
Among many blacks here, there’s a wide sense of defeat and resignation in a jury’s verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
“The feeling I have isn’t so much anger, its disappointment,” said Charlie Wilson, a resident of Midway, a predominantly black neighborhood in Sanford. “We wanted the right thing to go down. Instead it’s like a reminder that justice just doesn’t work for us. Not here. The message is that you can kill a black boy and get away with it.”
Zimmerman, 29, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed that he shot Martin in self-defense after the 17-year-old attacked him. Late Saturday, at the Seminole County criminal courthouse in Sanford, a jury of six women cleared Zimmerman of any wrong doing.
The verdict brought swift reaction from Martin’s supporters, who say Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, tracked him down and then killed him in a gated community on the outskirts of town Feb. 26, 2012. Outside of the courthouse on Saturday night some wept, others chanted “no justice, no peace.”
As the evening went on, the crowd thinned. One resident said that it was as if entire neighborhoods went into a collective mourning. The streets were mostly empty and quiet. By Sunday morning word spread of protests across the country, including in Oakland where protesters smashed a few windows and set small fires in the streets. In New York City, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. hundreds gathered peacefully and decried the verdict a miscarriage.
President Obama weighed in but less personally than he had a year earlier.
“I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher,” Obama said in a statement on Sunday. “But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” Many Americans were deeply moved in March, 2012, when the president said that if he had a son, he “would look like Trayvon,”
But in Sanford’s historic black neighborhoods of Goldsboro and Midway, where residents have long accused law enforcement and the criminal justice system of generally poor treatment, neighbors’ passions weren’t running over. Collectively, they came off as deflated.
“We always had these sores and we always will,” said Earl Williams, sitting on a front porch with half-dozen other black men, talking about the verdict. “And we keep getting more and more salt poured in them.”
A few of the men blamed the verdict on a lackluster case put on by prosecutors. Others speculated that it could have been an all white jury’s prejudices against young black men. But none blamed Martin’s own actions for his death, as defense attorneys had numerous times during the trial.
“The thing about us blacks, we’re strong,” Tommy Hampton chimed in. “We’ve been through so much of this. We’re going to be ok. But what about Trayvon’s parents? They’ll never get back what they lost.”
Standing outside of the Triumph Chorus church in Goldsboro, Mike Edwards, the father of a 20-year-old son, said he’s had an uneasy feeling since the verdict was read. He didn’t sleep well. The thought of his own son leaving home one day, and never coming back, tugged at him.
“It’s going to take a while for us to heal from this,” Edwards said, as the sounds of the choir spilled from inside the church. “This community might not ever heal. What can we tell our sons to do when someone’s chasing them or following them? All I can do is pray and protect mine.”
In various quarters of the city, community leaders are hoping to move on from the tragedy that has consumed it for more than a year and put the city under the national microscope. City activists have called for calm. Attorneys for Martin’s parents have asked supporters to show restraint and dignity in the wake of the verdict.
“People were angry last year because they wanted two things. One, for Zimmerman to be arrested and two, for him to be prosecuted,” City Manager Norton Bonaparte told msnbc. Since both of those two things have happened, Bonaparte said much of the anger that surrounded the case in the beginning has dissipated.
In an effort to bring the community together, the city announced on Sunday a county-wide program in which area churches will hold community prayer services at noon on Monday. Sanford Pastors Connecting, a multi-racial group of clergy who came together to help cool tensions during the tumultuous early days of the case, are sponsoring the program billed as “Noon Day Prayer” sessions.
Pastor Mack Cotton, who is unaffiliated with the group, said that God is probably the only power that can bring about unity following Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal.
“The only way we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in now is to turn to God. Because justice, ain’t no justice in man’s world,” said Cotton, standing on 13th Street in Goldsboro where he was preaching the gospel through a microphone and two large speakers for whoever cared to listen. “George Zimmerman is going to have to deal with that boy’s death for the rest of his life. He got his death sentence. So we can’t be waiting on a jury to give us justice. God’s going to have to do that for us.”
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.