Black Community in Sanford, Florida Gather to Wait for a Verdict

Police Chief Cecil Smith drew a mix of high-fives and heckles as he walked down the main thoroughfare of Goldsboro, a historic black neighborhood at the heart of this Florida town.

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith talks with a group of residents on 13th Street, which runs through the heart of Goldsboro, Sanford's historic black neighborhood. (Photo by Wayne Lawrence/Institute for MSNBC)
Passersby honked as he strode passed shuttered storefronts and dive bars. Eyes rolled as he made his way by a barbecue joint and a tattered old pool hall. Older women offered smiles while much younger ones turned away.

"I'm praying for you!" one woman yelled out.

Smith took the job as top cop just over two months ago after the previous chief was ousted in the fallout over the killing of Trayvon Martin. Smith, who is black, has made a habit of patronizing 13th Street, which runs through Goldsboro's core.

"If you have an issue," he urged residents and shopkeepers, "pick up the phone and call me."

Smith's good-will tour down one of the toughest streets in town is meant to allay long-simmering tensions felt between the black community and the police department, whose gleaming $20 million headquarters built in 2010, is located at the top of largely impoverished 13th Street.

The boulevard is a crumbling shell lined with shuttered storefronts and dimly lit mom-and-pop shops with sparsely stocked shelves. At night, gunfire is common, neighbors say. And the police routinely sweep through to disperse the crowds of young people that pool on street corners and in vacant lots.

It is along this road, the once bustling main drag of what a century ago had been one of the first African -American incorporated towns in Florida, where tensions brewed and then spilled over after Martin's killing.

And it is here where Sanford's black community will wait together for the verdict.

Police initially declined to arrest George Zimmerman who claimed he shot the teen in self-defense. Zimmerman is on trial in Sanford for second degree murder and has pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say that Zimmerman profiled, followed and then killed Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, as Martin made his way through the neighborhood where his father's girlfriend lived.

The shooting did not take place in Goldsboro but in a gated community a few miles away. Still, it highlighted a broad gulf between law enforcement and black residents that has widened through the years.

Martin's killing and the lack of an immediate arrest conjured up memories for Goldsboro of a shooting that took place two years earlier.

In that case, police shot and killed Eugene Scott, a black resident who had been jailed for armed robbery and was a fugitive on other charges. The shooting took place in a grocery store parking lot while police were attempting to arrest him. Scott was shot in the back. The officer who opened fire said he did so after Scott tried to run over his partner. The officer was cleared by law enforcement officials of wrong doing, but many in the black community remained unsatisfied with the findings.

Along 13th Street, residents are following Zimmerman's trial closely from local bars and over games of dominoes. Some say that what hinges on the outcome of the case is what blacks here have been owed far too long-- justice.

"People are trying to use this case to move us forward," said Pastor Valarie Houston, whose church is on the corner of Olive Avenue and 13th Street. "For this community," she said, the trial brings "an opportunity for a spiritual awakening as well as a sense of hope and empowerment."

A hard pill to swallow

On most afternoons, older men take refuge from the biting sun under the palm and willow trees where South Pomegranate Ave. meets W. 13th Street. Many of them spent years laboring in the region's citrus groves and celery fields but now commune over cold beer and boisterous games of dominoes.

Their leisure time is equal parts fellowship and an informal people's court where they pass judgment on everyone from local politicians to neighborhood ne'er-do-wells. They trade stories of run-ins with white supervisors and the police.

More recently the often raucous deliberations have been about Zimmerman's trial.

Source: MSNBC | Trymaine Lee
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