Florida town remembers Trayvon Martin a year after killing

File photos of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman (R) who has been charged with second-degree murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin (L) are seen in this combination photograph. Credit: Reuters
File photos of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman (R) who has been charged with second-degree murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin (L) are seen in this combination photograph.
Credit: Reuters

A year after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in this central Florida town, there is a small memorial, a new police chief and an effort to improve race relations.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was gunned down on February 26, 2012, as he walked to his father’s fiancee’s home in one of Sanford’s gated communities. The man accused of his killing, George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic on neighborhood watch, is set to be tried on June 10.

A judge could grant immunity to Zimmerman at a pre-trial hearing on April 29 under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to use lethal force in self defense if they are in fear of serious bodily harm.

Martin’s death drew top-tier civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who brought a national spotlight to this town just north of Orlando and not far from Disney World.

That spotlight forced the town of 53,000 to confront police work that seemed to be a throwback to the days of separate and resolutely unequal racial sensibilities.

“This situation, with all eyes on Sanford is making them (city leaders) do something about it now,” said Cindy Philemon, 49, who helps run the local black heritage museum and welcome center.

A year later Martin’s family says it does not want the case considered in racial terms. “We don’t want people to see this as a black kid. I want people to see this as a teenager … who was walking, minding his own business,” Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, told the NPR radio show “Tell Me More” on Monday night.

Despite the pain of losing her son, Fulton said she was glad that a debate had opened up about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

The family is backing an amendment to the law seeking to restrict its application. “You can’t follow, pursue and chase anyone, be the aggressor, have a confrontation with him, shoot and kill him, and then go home to your bed and nothing happens,” she said.

During the weekend, volunteers in the black community hastily worked to complete a modest memorial of stuffed animals, cards and crosses in time to remember the first anniversary of Martin’s shooting. It has also become a way for Sanford to remember the many other black victims of violence whose stories largely went untold.

City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black, said Sanford had begun to tackle deep-seated problems between police and the black community that were exposed in public forums after Martin’s death.

“In honoring Trayvon’s life, we have to make ourselves a better community,” Bonaparte said.

The police chief at the time of Martin’s shooting lost his job over criticism that his department and prosecutors chose not to charge or arrest Zimmerman.

The new chief starts his job in April.

“Now, it’s like the police are getting more involved in being with the community,” Philemon said. “They are starting to do their part in interacting with us. They say there is not as many shootings as there once was.”

Another resident, Thelma Holmes, 62, agreed saying, “It is better than what it was before, because we had a lot of killings of young men … The people and the police, they’re both trying.”

Trayvon’s death will not be forgotten.

“It started people to come forward. So his death is not going to be in vain,” Philemon said. “And he will always be remembered.”

Martin’s parents and lawyers will be in New York City, not Sanford, to hold a candlelight vigil on Tuesday night.

Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder, was granted bond and ordered to surrender his passport, agree to be electronically monitored, reside in Seminole County, and observe a nighttime curfew.


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