A month and a half before he died in 2011, 27-year-old Jimmie Flanders told his grandmother, Lula King: “I'm not going to live to see 28.”
“I wished I had known he was telling the truth,” King told an emotional crowd that had gathered at the Allen Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Olive Street in Sanford on March 21. It was an overcast Wednesday afternoon, but the pews were full – dozens had gathered not for services but to share their stories of unfair treatment at the hands of the Sanford Police Department.
The NAACP's national president and CEO, Ben Jealous, sat at a table at the front of the room with Seminole County's NAACP president, Turner Clayton Jr., while resident after resident – mostly women, several whom identified themselves as mothers and grandmothers of black men who died far too young – came forth to recount tales of arrests gone wrong, shootings that hadn't been investigated, excessive use of force, racial profiling. One man talked about watching his friend being beaten by police in an alley and a woman talked about having police throw a roadblock under her car tires when she was driving home at night because they thought she was somebody else. She hadn't done anything wrong, she says, and her car tire was busted by the block. But mostly, she was scared to have become the subject of suspicion simply for driving while black. “I could have been killed,” she said.
Then there were the stories like King's. The 75-year-old clenched her fists as she told Jealous about her grandson. Flanders had apparently had his share of run-ins with the law, and in spring of 2011, King says, he was taken into custody on an outstanding arrest warrant. While he was in the holding cell, she says, Flanders had a seizure. “He was kicking his legs, because that's what seizures do to you,” she said. “Three [officers] came in and beat him up.”
She says that when she got him out of jail, he had a lump the size of a “hen egg” on his head. He was bruised and scratched and beat up. She says she went to the police to file a complaint, but was told that no one had beaten Flanders – he had injured himself while in the cell. For weeks after he came home, he complained that he didn't feel well, that he knew something was wrong. Six weeks later, she says, he was dead. King is convinced that the beating had something to do with it. After the print version of this story went to press, Sanford police public information officer, Sgt. David Morgenstern returned a call for comment on the Flanders case and some of the other cases detailed in the church that day. "We rely on the community a lot to help us to find witnesses and whatnot," he said. "We’re not there for every crime that takes place, so we have to rely on the community to help us solve these." He asked for us to email him with more information on the cases and said he would try to respond in more detail.
King says she lost another grandson, who was 19, to murder a year ago. “He was gunned down,” she said. “They say he was robbing a man, but he was shot in the back. They know who did it, but they didn't arrest him.”
Likewise, Rebecca Wright said at the hearing, her son was killed in 2010, and his killer was allowed to go free because he thought he was being followed, felt threatened and shot her son. After the incident, she says, she saw her son's photo in the news. “They said he had a troubled past,” she says. “But he was still my son.”
Self-defense. It's the same reason George Zimmerman wasn't arrested for the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Ever since that shooting, the world has been watching Sanford. Over the past several weeks, the city and its leaders have come under intense scrutiny in the wake of what many say is a botched investigation of the shooting and a stubborn refusal by anyone to arrest Zimmerman for killing the unarmed teen.
City leaders have been scrambling to respond to the sudden and intense response from civil rights leaders, protesters and community members who've accused the city's police department of being intolerant, its leaders of being out to lunch and its good ol' boy network of being too accepting of policies that foster dated racist attitudes. The city's police department has stopped taking press inquiries about the Martin case altogether, according to a statement on the city of Sanford's website. Questions related to Trayvon Martin's shooting are now being directed to the state's attorney's office in Jacksonville.
Longtime residents of the city say they aren't surprised by the recent turn of events. Some say they've seen it coming. In fact, to people like Lula King, the firestorm that's hit Sanford is not only warranted – it's long overdue.
“I'm going to pray to God to bring justice to this town,” she said, as the crowd at Allen Chapel murmured in approval. “They put these black boys in jail on all these bogus charges, and it's just not true. … There is so much corruption in the police department, they as crooked as a barrel of fishhooks. … I pray every night for the truth.”
Hannibal Duncan says he was driving down Route 46 in Sanford one night, when “for whatever reason, I peered down an alleyway, and I thought I saw my best buddy's face.” Duncan, who also told his story to the NAACP on March 21, says he pulled into the alley and sure enough, he recognized his friend and a group of Sanford police officers.
“I saw them slamming him against their car, but they're not arresting him, they're just beating him,” Duncan says. He says police told him that his friend had been involved in an altercation in a nearby club, and after he interrupted them, they arrested his friend and put him in the cop car. His friend filed a complaint against the police for using excessive force, Duncan says, but “that complaint went nowhere.”
Duncan says he lives in a predominantly white neighborhood, but as an African-American man who spends time in a lot of predominantly African-American places, he sees how black residents and white residents of the same city often live in very different worlds. In one world, Sanford is a quaint, historic city where the black and white communities co-exist peacefully; in the other, people are accustomed to being separate and sometimes not always treated as equal.
It's common knowledge in Central Florida that Eatonville was the first African-American city incorporated in the United States after the Emancipation Proclamation. It's less commonly heard that Goldsboro, an enclave located within Sanford city limits, was actually the second. In 1891, Goldsboro, a settlement of black dock workers and agricultural laborers, was incorporated by a black store owner named William Clark and 19 voters. According to Francis Oliver, a longtime resident of Sanford and curator of a collection of Goldsboro artifacts contained in a blue double-wide trailer set up on 13th Street, this somewhat barren (and in some spots ramshackle) strip was once Goldsboro's main thoroughfare, a flourishing commercial strip with homes, shops, a post office, a police station and a jail.
In 1911, though, the mayor of Sanford, Forrest Lake, a banker and city booster whose administration is notable for its controversy, corruption and ambitious development projects, wanted the city to expand to the west. He had his eye on Goldsboro. He successfully petitioned the state legislature to revoke the city's charter, and Goldsboro was annexed by Sanford. Its streets, which were originally named for its founding fathers, were renamed, its post office and jail shuttered, its autonomy revoked and some of its businesses shut down. Oliver says that people who considered themselves entrepreneurs, leaders and politicians found themselves out of work and resentful. White farmers tried to hire them to work in the celery fields, but many refused.
“The police used to come down 13th Street and pick men up off the street and put them in jail,” she says. “They'd make them work it off in the fields.”
Over the years, Sanford – like most Southern cities – struggled with race relations. According to a short book written by Oliver, called A Timeline of the Civil Rights Struggle by Blacks of the Goldsboro Community and Sanford, FL, and the Trailblazers That Led the Way, in the 1920s, a black church was burned down after white neighbors complained about it, presumably to drive the black worshipers out. The book also recounts how, in the 1950s, residents of Sanford organized a local chapter of the NAACP after learning that a white store owner in the Goldsboro community was locking black kids in a walk-in freezer for allegedly stealing candy. In the 1960s, the city of Sanford closed its public swimming pool – which was for whites only – because a black teenager decided to take a swim. The city later built a new pool for the black community, but closed it down not long after, citing lack of money to keep it running. The city eventually filled in both of its swimming pools, and according to a 2000 story in the Orlando Sentinel, many suspect the reason was to avoid having to integrate them. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Oliver says, the black community had to battle for school integration, busing of black kids to Seminole County public schools and the revamping of the City Commission to make sure that the city's black community could elect its own representative to the commission. According to a 1983 story in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, that last battle was won in a federal class-action suit claiming that the city's black community had long been denied fair representation in city government. Beginning with its 1984 elections, the city stopped electing all of its members at large and instead divided the city into voting districts, each of which could elect its own representative.
The history of Goldsboro is something of a footnote in the archives of Sanford history. The names of Goldsboro's community leaders were given the dubious honor of having the city's public housing projects named after them when they were built in the 1950s through the 1970s, but now even those decrepit complexes are no longer in use, decommissioned over the past two years due to years of neglect and disrepair under the management of the troubled Sanford Housing Authority. Oliver says that for years, she was told by local historians that the reason the little town's history is so sparsely documented is that “black people didn't preserve their history.” But the museum she opened just last year in the little blue trailer, which is crammed full of yellowed newspaper clippings in binders, folders and picture frames, historic photos of Goldsboro's founding families and artifacts from original Goldsboro homes and businesses, present a different picture.
Oliver sat in on the NAACP hearings at Allen chapel, and she listened to King, Duncan and others tell their stories. She says none of the things people have been recounting to the NAACP are new – in addition to the things she documents in her book, she says, they've been going on for generations and have become a quiet legacy of, if not overt racism, an unspoken racial unrest that's always bubbling just beneath the surface.
“There has always been tension between Sanford and Goldsboro,” she says, a sentiment that was echoed by Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett in a recent story printed in the Orlando Sentinel.
In 2011, the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Goldsboro by Sanford, the Goldsboro Westside Community Historical Museum was founded with the city's help. The property it sits on is owned by the city of Sanford, and Oliver says it was a step in the right direction when it comes to recognizing the sometimes tense race relations in the city. She says she hoped some goodwill and healing could take place in the city. But then Zimmerman shot Martin and the old wounds were re-opened.
Though current city leadership may not be perfect, Oliver says, the mayor and City Commission are at least willing to listen and try to make things right. “Mayor Triplett got some sense,” she says. Indeed, the mayor has been praised by black leaders for his quick response when asked to fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal leaders to discuss the Martin case. When asked to release the 911 tapes from the night Martin was killed, he did so. He has appeared at contentious meetings and rallies and promised “that there will be no stone that won't be overturned” in determining whether Sanford police acted inappropriately after the shooting. He was even at the NAACP hearing, sitting in a pew and quietly taking notes as residents expressed their outrage. Part way through the meeting, Jealous called him up to address the crowd. Looking a little tired and uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit nervous, the fair-haired 43-year-old Triplett assured everyone that he shared their concerns about Martin's death and the stories they told that day. “I truly want everybody to know that I take this personally,” he said. “But you can't right the ship in one day. We have to take it one step at a time.”
Triplett is not the only one who is taking the Martin case – and the problems it has revealed to be alive and well in Sanford – personally. Over the past several weeks, civil rights powerhouses like the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and activist Dick Gregory have brought national attention to Martin's case with marches and rallies and fiery speeches, many of which have taken place in the usually placid and picturesque Fort Mellon Park on Sanford's Lake Monroe waterfront. As a result, the case has been tried – up until now – in a sometimes ugly public way in the media. The reputations of Martin, Zimmerman and the city of Sanford have been picked apart and assailed by pundits and local reporters alike. Recently, Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman was lambasted by pundit Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC for portraying unattributed statements (leaked by what Sanford calls “unauthorized sources” in a recent press release) indicating that Martin had assaulted Zimmerman before he was shot as undisputed facts. In the past two weeks, Martin's school discipline record, Facebook photos and Tweets have been delivered to media outlets, greedy for titillating bits of information about the case. Zimmerman's friend Joe Oliver – a mysterious acquaintance who inserted himself in the debate by coming forward, though it's not clear how well the men know one another or even how they are friends – stepped up to defend Zimmerman and insisted that he acted in self-defense. Videos of police taking Zimmerman in for questioning surfaced last week, and the media is dissecting them to determine whether they prove that Zimmerman suffered gashes to the back of his head, a broken nose and other injuries at Trayvon Martin's hands.
Lawyer Natalie Jackson has fast become one of the faces closely associated with Trayvon Martin's family. She says Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin's parents, are not rich and don't have the money to hire high-powered attorneys. All of the lawyers and court reporters working on their case at the moment are volunteering their time, Jackson says. The Martin case drew attention because a family member, Pat Jones, is an attorney in South Florida. She contacted Tallahassee lawyer Ben Crump, who she knew handled high-profile, controversial cases. Crump, who graduated from Florida State University law school in 1995, represented the family of Martin Lee Anderson, who was restrained, beaten and suffocated at a boot-camp-style detention center for juveniles in 2006. Jackson, founder of the Women's Trial Group, which focuses on litigation to help women and families, was brought in to work as the attorney on the local level. She knows the territory, she's familiar with how the criminal-justice system works here and it probably doesn't hurt that her mother is the Goldsboro Westside Community Historical Museum's Francis Oliver.
Jackson was raised in Sanford, and she says that, growing up, there was an ingrained sense of subtle racial separatism that permeated everything. She says she had friends who had Confederate flags on their cars and who thought it was normal for a city to be segregated not by law, but by habit.
“It's something that has always been there, and it's still there,” she says. “You have the black people living on their side of town and the white people live on their side. You have the black high school, Seminole, and the white high school, Lake Mary. And this was not during segregation time, this was in the 1980s, when I came up.”
There's also a sense, she says, not just in Sanford but in the media and the world in general, that there are two types of black people.
“My best friend in seventh grade was this white girl, and I remember we were talking about these other black girls, and she would say ‘oh, those niggers – but not you, you're not like that,'” Jackson says. “There's ‘this type' of black in some people's minds, and then there is the professional black. I'm an acceptable black.”
Martin's case has, so far, exposed both the best and the worst of race relations in the country. On one hand, it has unified thousands under a banner of demanding equal justice at the hands of law enforcement for all races. On the other, she says, it has brought out some divisive blame-the-victim tactics – those who rally around Trayvon's parents in demanding justice for their son are being accused of playing the race card, and those who resent the family's effort to get a fair shake for their son are slandering the teen in every venue possible. He's been the subject of Facebook memes that portray him – using a phony photo swiped from the Facebook album of a different kid named Trayvon Martin – as a wannabe gangsta. His high school discipline record, which documents typical teenage nonsense like writing on lockers and having an empty baggie containing marijuana residue – has been dissected as if it were the rap sheet of a career criminal. Despite the fact that he has no police record, haters are trying to paint him as a volatile kid deserving of the suspicion that Zimmerman had for him and that ultimately led to his death.
“They have a child who was a good child,” Jackson says. “He was not Jesus, but he was a good, average 17-year-old kid who was going to college, who had never been arrested, never been in jail, and he's turned into the face for every teenage thug out there, and it's not right. That's not the child that they raised.”
Martin's parents have come under attack as well, accused of playing the race card and of being opportunistic because they trademarked his name, which Jackson says was to prevent unscrupulous organizations or people who want to co-opt their son's killing to make money or spread hate or political messages. Justice for Trayvon, Jackson says, means just that.
“It's not about money,” she says. “This should be about justice for their child. If it's for something that helps another child, they are very happy about that. But the political aspect is not what they are in this for. That's for lobbyists and politicians to deal with.”
At a March 26 rally in Fort Mellon Park, it was clear that the cashing in had already begun. Trayvon Martin's image was ubiquitous, not just on homemade signs and photos, but on T-shirts being sold by hawkers out of piles on the ground, the backs of trucks and out of hand carts being pushed through the crowd. A crew of young sign-holders saying they were from the New Black Panther Party marched through the crowd announcing that it had put a $10,000 bounty on George Zimmerman's head in Trayvon Martin's name – a bounty Martin's parents, who say they want a peaceful, legal resolution, do not support or endorse. Jackson says the legal team has already begun sending out cease-and-desist orders for unauthorized use of Trayvon's photo and name. Given that context, the trademark makes sense.
As for turning this into a racial issue, Jackson says it's not the family who has been trying to make this about race. Media outlets – including this one – have taken an intense interest in Sanford's racial makeup and history, the tension felt between the black community and the police, the question of whether Zimmerman was suspicious of Trayvon simply because he was black. And it just so happens, she says, that Sanford does have a problem – if not of overt racial intolerance, perhaps – of accepting racial inequity. In education, in housing, in law enforcement.
Jackson recounts the case of an 18-year-old black teen she represented in Seminole County early in her career. He was smart and educated about his Constitutional rights, so when a police officer in Sanford demanded one night that he get out of his parked car for what seemed like no good reason, the kid asked the officer why.
“The police officer then slammed him into the car and on the concrete, his nose was broken, his jaw was broken,” Jackson says. “A crowd was gathering so he had no choice but arrest him. They take him to the fire department to clean him up because he has blood all over his face. And they take him to the police department and charge him with resisting arrest without violence. … This was a kid who had never been in trouble before, decent in school, no problems. [His mother] bonds him out, we're thinking this is an easy case.”
She says she learned a hard lesson about justice when her client lost the trial and ended up with six months' probation when he probably should never have been arrested at all. She says cases like that are commonplace in many cities, including Sanford, so a lot of people accept them as part of the fabric of justice. Instead, Jackson says, it's a travesty of justice.
“There's a complacency where people feel you can't do anything, this is just the way it goes,” she says. “And when it's like that, the police officers feel invincible when they try to deny your rights. And they have been invincible. And this is why it's struck such a chord.”
Nothing will bring Trayvon Martin back to his family. But what happened is not right, no matter the color of the perpetrator or the victim. “If you make everyone in this case green, what happened is not right,” Jackson says. So the family can only hope that Martin's death will not be in vain.
“His life meant something,” Jackson says. “And we hope that his legacy will mean something, too.”
Dennis Andre Williams was just 37 when he was shot to death in 2010 while holding his 8-month-old son in his arms.
“He bled to death in the street, holding his baby to his chest,” his aunt, Belle Cotton, told the NAACP when it was her turn to talk at Allen Chapel. The case has never been solved. She says the first investigating officer didn't do much with the case, and the family was hopeful when a new officer was assigned to look into it. “But then they kept giving him new cases and putting the investigation off,” she says. “I don't really feel we're getting anywhere with it, and every time we go down, they just tell us ‘We're getting closer.'”
Sanford police also failed to respond to an inquiry about where they are with the investigation of Williams' case, but according to February media reports about the two-year-old murder, the police were seeking “new leads” in the case. Cotton and her family say they felt that police never seemed very interested in solving the case to begin with. Without any response from the Sanford police, it's hard to determine whether that's true. But in the wake of Trayvon Martin's murder, perception that the police just don't care seems to be the dominant one. And that may be all that matters right now, because in this case, perception is a big part of the problem.
“I feel that if my nephew had been another race, something would have been done,” Cotton says. “I've been in this community all my life and I've seen so many innocent young black men killed and nothing is done about it. It's always swept under the rug. … It pierces my heart to think that this kind of thing goes on and that it could continue if we don't do something.”
Hannibal Duncan concurs: “In this society, the freest country on the planet, you shouldn't have to feel like you've got to wait for the NAACP and the Urban League to come to town to get equal justice,” he told Ben Jealous. “I just hope when the media circus dies down, you don't forget. Because this is an ongoing situation.”
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.