SANFORD, Fla. — Tensions are rising in Sanford as a special prosecutor nears a decision on whether to charge George Zimmerman with killing Trayvon Martin.
Someone shot up an unoccupied police car Monday night as it sat outside the neighborhood where Martin was killed. And a demonstration by college students closed the town’s police station earlier in the day.
Some residents Tuesday said they worry there will be violence if prosecutor Angela Corey accepts Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and decides not to charge the neighborhood watch captain with a crime. Corey has not said when she will announce her decision, but many in town believe it will be soon.
Police aren’t saying what, if any, precautions they are taking.
“We’re just anxious to know what’s going on,” Tiffany Lawson said as she fished along the St. John’s River, across the street from City Hall.
Martin’s killing as the unarmed, black 17-year-old was walking back from a convenience store Feb. 26 has touched off protests around the country and stirred a debate over racial profiling and self-defense that has reached all the way to the White House. Zimmerman’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic.
The case took a bizarre turn Tuesday as Zimmerman’s attorneys stood outside the courthouse and announced they were dropping him as their client for ignoring their advice in contacting the prosecutor. But they said they still believe his claim of self-defense.
While tensions are high, some think this city of about 53,000 — around 57 percent white and 30 percent black — will come through the crisis without violence, as it did during similar uproars.
Two years ago, after a black homeless man was beaten by the son of a Sanford policeman, passions soon cooled. The assailant, Justin Collison, initially wasn’t charged but eventually was arrested after footage of the episode went viral on YouTube. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received probation.
James Carder, a mechanic at McRobert’s Auto Center, put a message on his shop that was readily visible to anyone driving down First Street: “Sanford is still a good little town.”
Until the Martin shooting, Sanford was probably best known as the Florida stop for the Auto Train, the Amtrak line that carries tourists and their cars between suburban Washington and central Florida’s theme parks.
“I put it up because I do care about my good little town,” said Carder, who is white. “It has problems just like everywhere. But it’s still a good little town. It always has been and always will be.”
Over the weekend, a group of students from across Florida marched 40 miles from Daytona Beach to the Sanford police station. Once the three-day march ended, a small group staged a mini-shutdown of the station by sitting in front of the main entrance.
Eddie Jones, a 58-year-old black man and lifelong resident of Sanford, said Zimmerman’s arrest is paramount to keeping the protests peaceful.
“They need to go ahead and arrest this guy before something happens,” he said. “Sanford is screwed up. This place just didn’t get corrupt.”
Eric Arzate, who is white, said he and others in Sanford just want things to go back to the way they were before the shooting.
“I think everybody’s ready for it to be over,” he said. “Everybody wants justice. But let the judicial system run its course.”
Michigan teacher fired over Trayvon fundraiser
Meanwhile, a teacher fired from a Michigan middle school after encouraging students to raise money for Martin’s family said she is confused by the dismissal and wants the school’s administration to explain.
Brooke Harris was dismissed in March from Pontiac Academy for Excellence after she supported students’ efforts to plan a wear-a-hoodie-to-school day. Martin was wearing a hoodie on Feb. 26 when he was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
A number of groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., have called for Harris to be reinstated.
“I’m really confused why I got fired,” Harris told The Associated Press. “I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
According to the SPLC, a national civil rights group, Harris’ eighth-grade journalism students asked her about the death of Martin.
Harris gave the students an editorial-writing assignment on the shooting. But the students wanted to raise money for Martin’s family and asked the school’s administrators if they could each pay $1 to wear hoodies instead of school uniforms for a day, the group said. It said the school regularly has fundraisers in which students are allowed to “dress down.”
The literature teacher said she approached school administrators “through the chain of command” but that superintendent Jacqueline Cassell said the project could not go forward. Harris said she was in the process of explaining this decision to the students when she was called for a meeting with Cassell.
The superintendent suspended Harris for encouraging the students and then fired her after she showed up at the school to drop off prizes for students when she had been told to stay away, the SPLC said.
“I didn’t tell the kids, ‘Let’s go and do it anyway.”’ Harris said. “I was actually, literally, in the process of talking to my kids about what we could do instead when (Cassell) requested the meeting with me and told me that I needed to let it go.”
Cassell said she couldn’t discuss personnel matters, but that she wanted students to focus on learning, not activism.
“I’m a child of the civil rights movement,” Cassell said. But “this is not the time in the school year” to distract students from academics.
“In every situation, there are work rules,” she said. “When rules are violated, there are consequences.”
Harris said her teaching record was clean and that Cassell “wouldn’t let me defend myself.”
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the Academy’s decision was a “travesty” that would only hurt students.
“It taught the students who tried to organize and tried to raise their voice in terms of social justice that they will be repressed,” Walid said at a news conference at a Detroit church. “Instead of empowering our children … the Pontiac Academy is actually teaching children to internalize oppression and internalize racism.”
A rally about the Martin case and Harris’ firing was scheduled at the church — King Solomon Missionary Baptist — for Tuesday evening. Harris was expected to be there.
Harris said she still wants someone from the school to provide more details on why she was fired.
“I just want a reason,” Harris said. “She’s got my phone number, and I’d appreciate if she’d tell me what I did wrong.”