Sanford, Fla.—When city leaders here feared their community was on the verge of rioting after the killing of an unarmed black teenager, a little-known federal agency quietly parachuted into town to negotiate peace among angry groups.
The killing of Trayvon Martin, shot dead by George Zimmerman who has claimed he acted in self-defense, opened long-festering racial wounds in Sanford. And when black and white religious leaders failed to cool tensions, the stealthy group of so-called “peacemakers” held clandestine meetings and brought together ministers who’d been at odds for decades.
“I’d hate to say that we couldn’t have done it without them, but I’d much rather learn from someone else’s experience rather than my own misfortune,” Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett said of efforts by Justice Department office of Community Relations Service.
Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial began Monday with jury selection. He has said that Martin attacked him the night of the killing and has pleaded not guilty. Community groups, local activists and law enforcement agencies have been meeting and training with CRS representatives in preparation for what is expected to be an emotionally charged trial that could last as long as six weeks.
“There’s no two ways about it. There are going to be people who are going to be unhappy no matter which way it goes and we are preparing for that,” Triplett said.
In the weeks after Martin’s killing on Feb. 26 last year, tensions were at a boiling point as police declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing the state’s Stand Your Ground Laws which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force in self-defense.
As anger over the case grew, Triplett and Norton Bonaparte, Sanford’s city manager, made a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Thomas Perez, then the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
The Department pledged to investigate Martin’s killing, particularly to see if there were any civil rights violations committed as a result. Bonaparte said the department would also send CRS personnel if the agency was welcome in Sanford.
Almost immediately, the department dispatched Thomas Battles, a veteran mediator who serves as the agency’s Southeast regional director.
Battles became director of CRS in 2003 after more than 25 years as a senior conciliation specialist in the Miami field office. Battles, who is African-American, has been described by Sanford’s political leaders, clergy and activists as a calm, guiding force amid the often frenetic winds of discontent.
“Battles has really brought us together,” said Pastor Valarie Houston, whose church, Allen A.M.E Chapel has hosted several meetings and rallies following Martin’s killing. “He’s not a forceful person, he’s not a push person, he just knows how to connect all of the key people and pull people together. He just knows his job.”
‘Peacemakers’ cool tensions amid racial strife
The CRS was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address tensions associated with racial discrimination. It was expanded in 2009 to respond to violent hate crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or disabilities.
In 2011 the agency responded to 1,100 cases across the country. In Danville, Va., they helped one community develop a response to reports of increased Ku Klux Klan activity. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., they helped smooth tensions over the construction of a mosque. And in Millard, Utah, agency mediators worked with Paiute Tribe leaders and the state’s Department of Indian Affairs after accusations of excessive force by local sheriffs.
They carry out their work with little fanfare or media attention. Perhaps more importantly, agency professionals come after taking an oath that their work will be neutral and conducted under the strictest confidence.
“We go all over the country, going to hot spots and really trying to make a difference and really help people in these communities help themselves,” Grande Lum, the director for CRS, said in an interview.
In Sanford, Lum said, the office “played a first responder kind of role.”
“We as a society have come a long way, and organizations like the Community Relations Service, being there at the right place at the right time, when people really need it, I think it’s really important,” Lum said.
Battles has seen much of the change and much of the tension from posts in Atlanta and Miami. He listened to residents in the town of Jasper, Texas, in 1998 after three white men tied a black man to the back of a truck and dragged him to his death. Battles also traveled to Louisville, Ky., after a grand jury refused to indict two white police officers in 2003 after they shot and killed a handcuffed black prisoner.
And in 2006, Battles went to Jena, La., where nooses were hung from a tree after six African-American teenagers were charged with attempted murder for beating up a classmate.
But in Sanford, the circumstances of Martin’s death had pushed the story across the country and drew national attention to this commuter suburb of Orlando. Battles’ team fanned out to meet privately with local law enforcement and a group of college students who had blockaded the local police department. Gatherings were organized with activists and between members of the black community—long distrustful of local law enforcement— and police officials.
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While mediators attended nearly every rally or protest in town, they always stayed on the periphery.
“They want to be seen as completely neutral and be able to go from party to party to assist in facilitating whatever is needed without being seen as on one side or another,” Bonaparte said. “To me the main thing is that the other side felt that [the CRS] could be trusted. They might not trust us but they certainly should be able to trust the DOJ.”
Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said the CRS will remain in Sanford throughout Zimmerman’s trial, and that it will continue to consult with local officials and community leaders on how best to prevent any flare ups of racial tension.
In preparation, CRS workers have held workshops with local ministers and taken a field trip to court to go over trial procedures. The agency also helped a group of pastors secure four seats in the courtroom for Zimmerman’s trial. Leadership from the religious community is where Battles and his team have concentrated their greatest efforts and yielded their biggest successes.
Religious leaders break bread
One of Battles biggest feats, at least among some folks, simply boiled down to a guest list for lunch at a local Cracker Barrel restaurant.
When Martin was killed, Rev. Harry Rucker, a black preacher well known for his beliefs that integration was a mistake, organized rallies and meetings and called for justice. Jeff Krall, a popular white pastor and founder of Sanford Ministers Fellowship, wanted to hold a city-wide prayer vigil. But Martin’s family— at the urging of some of the city’s black ministers— said no. His group was simply too white, Revs. Derrick Gay and Valarie Houston told msnbc.
Battles approached Krall and Rucker separately and asked if they’d be willing to break bread, according to Krall. They agreed, and over biscuits they talked about the past, how the Martin case had consumed the community and could be a powder keg if unchecked.
Rucker and Krall stayed in touch. Two weeks later, more than a dozen other pastors representing the larger community joined them at Cracker Barrel.
“It was just so joyful, everyone was getting along and loving on one another and passing out business cards and talking like old friends,” Krall recalled.
From that meeting a new group was formed: Sanford Pastors Connecting.
They held joint public events to pray for both Martin’s and Zimmerman’s families. They held meetings and mini-summits that drew dozens of ministers from across the city. There was frank conversation about all the past wrongs and perceived wrongs committed among them. And for the first time in as long as many could remember, there was frank talk about racial animosity and healing.
“If you don’t have lunch or breakfast or hang with any of the other black pastors, if you don’t have friends from another culture, you only know about that culture from the news,” said Pastor Krall, a co-chair of Sanford Pastors Connecting. “I find we are robbing each other of our humanity, and I think it goes both ways.”
‘Good is going to come out of it’
Sanford has had no shortage of racial tensions and issues. And Martin’s killing and its initial handling by the Sanford Police Department, has been seen by some, particularly in the black community, as a stinging injustice.
In the aftermath of the shooting, hurt feelings over a string of past incidents have bubbled up, rekindling distrust over the way police and courts have handled such cases.
In 2011, then-police chief Brian Tooley was forced from office following a scandal involving a lieutenant’s son who was captured on video attacking a homeless black man. Police officers questioned the officer’s son but did not arrest him for several weeks and only then after a video recording of the attack went viral.
In 2005 the killing of a black teenager, Travares McGill, by two white security guards at an apartment complex, one the son of a Sanford Police officer, badly damaged race relations.
The two men claimed McGill tried to run them down in a car. Both fired and later claimed they did so in self-defense. McGill was pronounced dead at the scene. The pair was arrested and charged, one with manslaughter and the other with firing into an occupied vehicle. But a judge later cited lack of evidence and dismissed both cases. According to autopsy reports, McGill suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the back.
The CRS can’t heal it all and some say the tensions within the community have not abated since Martin’s killing.
Many pastors, both black and white concede that finding common ground, even among the willing has been difficult.
“There has definitely been some headway made, although I don’t think as much has been done as could’ve been done,” said Gay, an African-American member of Sanford Pastors Connecting.
But out of tragedy has come an opportunity.
“I believe that in this bad situation —what was intended for evil—good is going to come out of it,” Gay said. “It opened up a dialogue where people are now talking and saying we can make our city a better city.”