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Florida cities on guard for potential post-Zimmerman verdict unrest

Police and city leaders in Florida say they have taken precautionary steps for the possibility of mass protests or even civil unrest if George Zimmerman is acquitted in the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, particularly in African-American neighborhoods where passions run strongest over the case.

For months, officials in Sanford and South Florida have been working with pastors, youth coaches, community activists and summer camp counselors to stress a non-violent approach if Zimmerman walks free. At the same time, police say they have quietly been making plans for dealing with any potential emotional flare-ups that could quickly turn into storefront-smashing, car-burning riots.

"It's all right to be vocal, but we don't want to be violent," said the Rev. Walter T. Richardson, a longtime pastor and chairman of Miami-Dade County's Community Relations Board, which has been holding town hall-style meetings about the case. "We've already lost one soul and we don't want to lose any more."

Martin, from the suburb of Miami Gardens, was 17 when he died. He was in Sanford visiting his father and father's fiancee when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, fatally shot him during a physical confrontation in a gated community in February 2012.

Martin's supporters portrayed the shooting as racially motivated, while Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, claimed self-defense. Charged with second-degree murder, Zimmerman is pleading not guilty at the trial unfolding in a Sanford courthouse.

After police initially refused to arrest Zimmerman, there were many large but peaceful protests in both Sanford and the Miami area — as well as in New York and other cities. Those demonstrations included a mass walkout at nearly three dozen South Florida high schools.

Many in Sanford say they doubt the trial's outcome would spark local residents to take to the streets.

"The main focus was to get Zimmerman arrested and have him tried before a jury of his peers in a court of law," said Clayton Turner Jr., president of the Seminole County branch of the NAACP. "That was the main issue, not how we felt about whether he's innocent or guilty."

Not everyone is so certain.

Shantree Hall, 37, a lifelong Sanford resident who is black, said a Zimmerman acquittal might anger many in the African-American community who already feel they are less likely to obtain justice. The protests that led to Zimmerman's arrest taught many people that was the only way to get things done, she added.

"With Trayvon, the noise was too loud for them. That's why they couldn't sweep it under the rug," she said.

Recent Miami-area high school graduate Jude Bruno, 18, said he doesn't sense from friends and peers that there is a powder keg in South Florida waiting to explode should Zimmerman be found innocent. Bruno is chairman of the Miami-Dade County Youth Commission, which has been working with local youth groups to stress a peaceful reaction.

"We want to be the example to the world because the whole world is watching us," Bruno said.

Bruno spoke after a Community Relations Board meeting this week that drew several hundred people to a Miami Gardens library auditorium, some of them wearing "Justice for Trayvon" T-shirts and many asking sharp-edged questions about the trial. Still, the overall theme was peace.

"Please, no violence. We don't want any violence. None," said Miriam Martin, one of Trayvon Martin's aunts.

One potential advantage mentioned by several law enforcement officials: school is out for summer, meaning there is no ready-made rallying point for young people to gather.

Still, authorities are taking no chances, particularly in the Miami area which has had riots in the past connected to racially-charged court cases.

The worst rioting occurred in 1980 in the mostly-black Liberty City and Overtown neighborhoods of Miami, after four white police officers were acquitted in the death of Arthur McDuffie, a black Marine Corps veteran. McDuffie was beaten to death by police trying to stop him for a traffic violation. The three-day riot killed 18 people and did some $100 million in damage.

The Miami-Dade Police Department's intelligence operation, known as the Southeast Florida Fusion Center, has been combing social media to monitor signs of unusual interest in Zimmerman's trial. The center also acts as a platform for South Florida's numerous police agencies to quickly share information.

The department's deputy director, Juan Perez, said law enforcement's goal is to allow for peaceful rallies or protests but be ready in case violence flares. Perez said plans call for establishment of "First Amendment Zones" in certain neighborhoods if crowds do gather, so people can exercise their rights.

"We want to make sure people have the right to protest," Perez said. But if there are problems, he added: "Our job is going to be to minimize those opportunities to rob a store or shoplift."

To the north in Broward County, Sheriff Scott Israel and his staff have organized several meetings with African-American church and community leaders and recently began airing a public service TV ad featuring Miami Heat player James Jones. The ad's theme is "Raise Your Voice, Not Your Hands" and it also stresses a nonviolent approach.

"We don't have information about a specific event that might take place at the conclusion of the trial, but we encourage everyone to keep any protests peaceful," Israel said.

Similarly, in central Florida, religious leaders have been encouraged to attend the trial and discuss it with their congregations. Up to four courtroom seats were reserved for clergy on a rotating basis, and more than a dozen churches have held regular Monday prayer sessions during the trial.

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