As I stood in the Seminole County courtroom in Sanford, Fla. Saturday night and heard the two words that set George Zimmerman free, I felt extreme sadness, disappointment and anger. I stood there—silent and numb—while Zimmerman, his family and his lawyers hugged, shook hands, high-fived and cried celebratory tears.
As the world knows by now, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager whose only crime was buying Skittles.
Today, Zimmerman is a free man—and can even reclaim the gun that he used to commit murder.
I wasn’t surprised by the verdict. I was born and raised in Sanford, a city of 54,000 people north of Orlando. For many years, an invisible line separated Black and White, rich and poor. I grew up in Midway, a low-income Black neighborhood, and was reminded daily, in small ways and big, that I was different and destined for a life of poverty, fatherless children and low wage jobs. It was unspoken, but there were parts of town where Blacks didn’t go, where we knew we didn’t belong. My grandmother labored 12-hour days in the orange groves. My mother had to drop out of high school after she got pregnant with me at age 16. It is a story so clichéd among Black folks in the South that it is worn and frayed from the telling.
The shooting exposed Sanford’s racist history and the years of mistreatment and mistrust by the mostly White police department in the Black community. Two days after Trayvon was killed, my mom called to tell me about the unarmed Black teen and how he was fatally shot by a “White” man—as residents believed—and how the police had not made an arrest. I had heard similar stories over the years. In Sanford, the Black community, like many around the country, grappled with drugs and crime and teenagers who felt life had nothing more to offer them than a one-way ticket to an early grave or prison. “That’s terrible,” I said, before adding cynically, “But next week, people will have moved on and forgotten about it.”
“No,” my mother said firmly. “This time it’s different.” As it turns out, she was right.
I was in the courtroom from the first days of jury selection until the verdict was announced. On the first day of jury selection, I saw Sybrina Fulton in the ladies room. “How are you?” I asked her. It seemed like an odd question but I really wanted to know. “I’m here,” she responded. So was I. To bear witness, to support and to pray that she would get justice for her son.
I had been a journalist for more than 20 years, but this was my first time covering a trial. Even so, I knew something was terribly wrong during jury selection when a White woman in her 50s said that Trayvon Martin would have never been shot and killed if he hadn’t been suspended from school. She was chosen for the jury. I watched as a blond woman in her 30s seemed to flirt with defense attorney Mark O’Mara. She also was chosen. From the beginning I wondered, “Will this group of mostly middle-aged White women really understand the life, the challenges, the fears of a 17-year-old Black boy?”
The Black community in Sanford was worried too. They knew of the countless other young Black boys who had been killed with little attention or concern from city officials. They knew about Justin Collision, the White son of a Sanford police lieutenant who two years ago was caught on video suckerpunching a Black homeless man outside of a bar. He was arrested a month after the attack and later received probation. At a local church, the head of the Central Florida NAACP told a crowd about the death threats that he’d received. One anonymous caller told him, he said, Black folks in Sanford needed to just “sit down and shut up!”
Insidious, unspoken, ingrained, indestructible. That was—and remains—the racism that still exists in Sanford.
After the verdict, some of Sanford’s Black residents went to church and prayed; others went to the streets and protested. The city became like a police state. Police officers stood on guard at local restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations. I wondered, who were they protecting the stores from? At a local Wal-Mart, I watched as a White woman nervously purchased three different types of bullets. Whom was she protecting herself from? I asked myself, hoping that it wasn’t someone who looked like me. If she saw me walking in her neighborhood would she care that I graduated with honors from the local high school? Or that I worked a full-time job while attending college? Or that I had a master’s degree from one of the top-ranking universities in the country? Or that I had a successful career as a magazine editor? Probably not. She would see my skin and make assumptions. Maybe the same kind of assumptions that killed Trayvon Martin.
I admit I feel betrayed by my hometown, but I take comfort in the fact that the city of Sanford has learned some hard lessons and is taking steps to heal and improve race relations. Since he took office in April, months after Trayvon’s killing, Police Chief Cecil Smith, who is Black, has implemented programs to help mend relations between the police and the community. Every Thursday, Smith and a dozen police officers go door-to-door in different neighborhoods, meeting the residents and listening to their concerns. At a recent prayer service, Smith thanked the community for keeping the peace. “We still have struggles,” he admitted. “But we are at the forefront of making all of these changes, not just in Sanford, but all around the world.”
Change. That’s the challenge for Sanford and I hope those changes will be what defines this tragic time in its history. It’s the most that the city can do to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin.
Veronica Byrd is a former features editor at Essence. She is currently a writer who lives near Miami.