Published July 12, 2013
Law enforcement officials and religious leaders called for calm in the event jurors acquit George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Trayvon Martin in 2012 in a racially-charged case.
"This is a trying time for all of us," Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, who joined Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger at a news conference immediately after the jury got the case Friday. But, he said, "I'd like to remind everyone that the city of Sanford is a peaceful location and it has been since that time 17 months ago."
Pastor Glenn Dames of St. James AME Church in Titusville, told Florida Today his congregants will focus on prayer rather than protests regardless of the verdict. But he said the African-American community is still seething over the way the case was handled following the Feb. 26, 2012 incident.
“For so many of the youth, I think you have to understand that the way this case was handled seems like a slap in the face. How could Zimmerman shoot Trayvon and by his own admission be free to leave 12 hours later? You’ve also had Trayvon demonized.”
In Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged calm, too.
"We seek justice not revenge from the American judicial system," Jackson said. "If Zimmerman is convicted there should not be inappropriate celebrations because a young man lost his life; and if he is not convicted we should avoid violence because it will only lead to more tragedies. Self-destruction is not the road to reconstruction."
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 is Hispanic, claimed self-defense.
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.
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 said at a Community Relations Board meeting earlier this week in a Miami Gardens library auditorium
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.