SANFORD, Fla. — Once again, a river of protest raged through Sanford this weekend to demand justice in the name of an unarmed black teenager shot dead. It gathered strength in front of the historic Crooms Academy, the first high school for black students in Seminole County, surged through the streets, and formed a flood of grief and outrage just outside the Sanford Police Department.
Once again, thousands chanted the name of Trayvon Martin, 17, the youth killed with one bullet while returning to a home in a gated community. Once again, they cried for the arrest of George Zimmerman, 28, the neighborhood watch coordinator who has claimed self-defense under a Florida law with the assertive name of Stand Your Ground.
With five weeks’ passage, the fateful encounter between a black youth who wanted to go to college and a Hispanic man who wanted to be a judge has polarized the nation.
And, now this modest central Florida community finds its name being mentioned with Selma and Birmingham on a civil rights list held sacred in black American culture, while across the country, the national parsing of the case has become cacophonic and political, punctuated by pleas for tolerance, words of hatred, and spins from the left and right.
The racial divide that once partly defined Sanford, with U.S. Highway 17-92 serving as the inviolable line separating black and white, has faded over the decades, leaving a casually integrated downtown. Yet the sense remains among residents of both races that the Police Department has not come as far as the city as a whole.
Velma Williams, its sole black city commissioner, calls Sanford “a small, friendly, good city.” But she said that a string of unsolved cases had raised questions whether the police had a “cavalier attitude” whenever “a black male is murdered.”
Nonsense, countered its acting police chief, Darren Scott, who is also black. “Everyone here in the city gets fair and equal treatment.”
That assertion of justice for all — in Sanford and throughout the U.S. — has been challenged, though, by a progression of events that began so innocently, so ordinarily: A teenage boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt leaves a 7-Eleven’s neon brightness with his purchase of some candy and an iced tea, and heads back into the wet Sunday evening of Feb. 26, back to a residential complex with a forbidding gate and a comforting name.
Trayvon Martin was more than welcome there; he was expected.
For more than two years, Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, a truck driver from Miami, had been dating Brandy Green, a juvenile detention officer in Orlando. She lived at the Retreat with her 14-year-old son, Chad, and it was not uncommon for the Martins to drive up from Miami for overnight visits. Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who was divorced from Tracy Martin, worked for the Miami-Dade County housing agency.
More than 6 feet tall and lanky, Trayvon was interested in girls, computer games, sports and the beat of the rap and hip-hop emanating from the ear buds of his smartphone. Sleeping in Miami Dolphins bed sheets, he was all teenage boy, and more.
But Trayvon was a teenager, not an angel. In his last year at his high school in north Miami-Dade County, he had received three suspensions — for tardiness, for graffiti and, most recently, for having a baggie with a trace of marijuana in his backpack. Tracy Martin said that he had taken Trayvon with him to Sanford to keep him from hanging around Miami, doing nothing, and to talk some sense into him.
These recent problems, all nonviolent, hardly reflected the essence of Trayvon Martin, his family and friends say. He was kindhearted, even-tempered and very thoughtful. That night, for example, while his father and Green were out having dinner in Orlando, Trayvon asked Chad, Green’s son, if he wanted anything from the store.
Skittles, the younger boy said.
A wary community
The teenager with candy entered the Retreat at Twin Lakes, either passing the front gate or taking a not-so-secret shortcut. Here was an orderly cluster of 260 or so sandy-colored, two-story town houses.
In August, the homeowners association decided to create a neighborhood watch, and a Sanford police official came to the Retreat to explain the guidelines: Volunteers do not possess police powers; they should not be armed; and they should be the eyes and ears for the police — but not vigilantes.
The group chose as its neighborhood watch coordinator the very man who had invited the official to speak: a man with thinning dark hair and an average build named George Zimmerman. The next month, the newsletter for the homeowners association included a cartoon of a man peering through a magnifying glass, a la Sherlock Holmes, next to a call for help:
“We have recently experienced an increased incidence of crime within the community, including three break-ins in the past month, which is why having residents committed to being members of the Neighborhood Watch and reporting suspicious activities is so important. We must send a message that we will not tolerate this in our community!”
To get involved, the newsletter said, “Call George Zimmerman.”
From Virginia to Florida
Now, on this dark, wet night, the neighborhood watch coordinator for the Retreat at Twin Lakes — armed with a licensed, slim 9-mm handgun that he kept in a holster tucked in his waistband — was in his truck when he noticed a hooded figure walking through the complex.
He may have been about to go on an errand to Target, as he later told his family, but his commitment to vigilance kicked in. This, it seems, was part of who George Zimmerman was.
He, too, was from someplace else — the second of three children raised in a red-brick home in a cul-de-sac in Manassas, Va. His father, Robert, a magistrate judge and a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his mother, Gladys, a Peruvian immigrant who worked as a deputy court clerk, ran a disciplined household that emphasized service, responsibility and the Roman Catholic faith.
After graduating from high school in 2001, Zimmerman moved to Florida, into a home that his parents had just bought for their retirement in Lake Mary, near Sanford. He began working as an insurance agent with an uncle, but he became a mortgage broker when the real estate market started booming.
When his parents retired to Florida around 2006, Zimmerman moved into an apartment in Lake Mary with a friend. Then the housing market went bust and, according his father, his son’s employer went out of business. After that, he held several jobs, including at CarMax and Target. He also talked about becoming a police officer.
He seemed to be a young man in search of a path, one who could also show flashes of violence, according to court records detailing Zimmerman’s difficult summer of 2005. That July, he was arrested after pushing a state alcohol agent during a raid to root out underage drinking at a popular college bar; the felony charge was reduced and then dropped altogether when he agreed to enter a pre-trial diversion program.
About a month later, Zimmerman and a woman who identified herself as his ex-fiancee traded petitions for injunction, both claiming that the other had resorted to violence: She said he “smacked” her, he said she hit him with a baseball bat. Both injunctions were issued and they expired a year later.
Still, Zimmerman seemed to have a protective streak — a sense of right and wrong — that others admired. For example, Stephanie, a neighbor of the elder Zimmermans in Lake Mary and a family friend, recalled how George Zimmerman struck up a friendship with one of her sons, Douglas, who is autistic, swimming with him, taking him for car rides and letting him play with his dog, Princess.
“He just felt comfortable with George,” she said. “For Dougie, everything was George, George, George.”’
But not everyone saw Zimmerman as their protector. A 17-year-old African-American, Teontae Amie, who lives at the Retreat, recalled that Zimmerman once wrongly accused his friend of stealing a bike.
“When you see him, you think automatically that he might try something,” said Teontae, who added that he kept his distance from the neighborhood watch coordinator.
Zimmerman, then, was a watchdog. And here in the night rain came another suspicious person, in a hood.
George Zimmerman dialed 911.
‘A real suspicious guy’
“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood,” Zimmerman said to start the conversation with the dispatcher. “And there’s a real suspicious guy.”
This guy seemed to be up to no good; like he was on drugs or something; in a gray hoodie. Asked to describe him further, he said, “He looks black.”
“Now he’s just staring at me,” he said.
The incomplete knowledge of the next six minutes, from about 7:11 to about 7:17, comes from recorded 911 calls; a few witnesses who often heard more than saw; Zimmerman’s account, as told to others; the police account, as told to the Martin and Zimmerman families; and a 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami who was on the telephone at the time with Trayvon.
Zimmerman told the dispatcher that this “suspicious guy” was in his late teens, with something in his hands. He asked the dispatcher how long it would be before an officer arrived, because “These assholes, they always get away.”
Around the same time, Trayvon told the girlfriend he was talking to by cellphone that somebody was watching him, according to Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Trayvon’s family. The lawyer said that the girl, whose name has not been released, said she told Trayvon to run — and that Trayvon responded by saying: “I’m going to walk fast.”
Zimmerman told the dispatcher that the hooded figure was now running. He jumped out of his car to follow him, the beep-beep of his car, as recorded on the 911 call, announcing the instant that he moved beyond his understood mandate as neighborhood watch coordinator.
The wind could be heard whooshing through Zimmerman’s cellphone as he tried to keep the visitor in view. Also heard is a garbled epithet that some have interpreted to be a racial slur, though his father insisted that his son would never say anything like that. Dispatcher: “Are you following him?”
Dispatcher: “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”
He and the dispatcher arranged for Zimmerman to meet a police officer near the mailboxes at the development’s clubhouse, and the call ended with a “thank you” and a “you’re welcome.”
Some of what happened next, along a poorly lighted path that runs between the back ends of two long rows of town houses, is lost to the night.
According to what the girlfriend has told Crump, Trayvon asked the man why he was following him, and the man responded by asking what Trayvon was doing there. She said she heard what sounded like the earpiece to Trayvon’s cellphone falling away before the line went dead. There was no answer when she tried calling back.
Zimmerman’s father provided a different account, based on his conversations with his son. He said that George Zimmerman had lost sight of the hooded figure and was beginning to walk back to his vehicle when Trayvon appeared from his rear left side. He also described a conversation that began far differently than the one recalled by the girl on the phone.
“He did not see Trayvon until he was right there,” he said, at which point, Trayvon, cursing, asked if George Zimmerman had “a problem.”
“And George said, ‘No, I don’t have a problem,’ or ‘No, there is no problem.’ And Trayvon said, ‚ÄòYou do now,’ and he punched George in the nose.”
However it started, witnesses described to the 911 dispatcher what resulted: the neighborhood watch coordinator, 5-feet-9-inches and 170 pounds, and the visitor, 6-feet-1 and 150, wrestling on the ground.
Screams for help echoed off the backs of town houses. Hearing those screams, now preserved on recorded 911 calls, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, says they are the cries of her baby. And Robert Zimmerman says they are the pleas of his younger son, George.
No one answered those calls for help. But several people called 911. A man reported “they’re wrestling right in the back of my porch.” A boy said that he was about to help when his dog slipped his leash and he had to track the animal down. A woman called to report the screams, a report that was underscored by the plaintive wail in the background.