With its quaint cobblestone streets and painstaking efforts to preserve the remnants of its 19th-century start, this central Florida city offers a sharp contrast to the endless freeways and big-box stores that have paved over “history” in most of Orlando’s rambling suburbs.
That past has not always been glorious. Whites in Sanford once ran Jackie Robinson out of town rather than watch him train here with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Now, the killing of Trayvon Martin has turned Sanford into a crucible of racial anger, rippling across the United States and defying the nation’s first black President to make good on his almost forgotten promise of post-racial reconciliation.
The volatile alchemy that provoked such national outrage over the death of an innocent black teen in a hoodie has many elements. They include Sanford’s seemingly Keystone cops, Florida’s permissive guns laws and the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” legislation that its critics call a licence to kill.
Yet, none of those ingredients alone might have produced the distemper that has gripped black America had Trayvon’s shooting not occurred amid pent up racial tension worsened by a recession that inflicted its pain unequally according to colour.
The specific event that has drawn thousands of black protesters to Sanford, and hundreds of thousands more to marches across the country, was the decision by local police to let Trayvon’s shooter go free after he claimed to have been acting in self-defence. A 2005 law that allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened underpinned that move.
The symbolic freight of that decision galvanized the black community nationwide even as it seems to take everyday racism in the criminal-justice system or job market for granted.
“For African-Americans, this incident seemed to fit a pattern that was disturbingly similar to an earlier time when, in the South in particular, white men were largely exempt from prosecution for crimes against black men,” explains Scot French, a professor of public history at the University of Central Florida.
For President Barack Obama, the incident is an uncomfortable reminder of his unfulfilled promise to address “the racial stalemate” that has long plagued the nation. He made the pledge as a candidate in 2008 in a passionate rejoinder to his black pastor’s dystopian diatribe on race-based America. Jeremiah Wright's early 2008 complaint that “we lift up the Liberty Bell, but we're defined by the hangman's noose” threatened to derail Mr. Obama's presidential bid. Four years and a recession later, the stalemate has thickened.
No one expected, as Mr. Obama put it, that the country “could get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle.” But the wound, ripped open by Trayvon’s Feb. 26 death at the hands a neighbourhood-watch volunteer, shows how little it has even tried.
In that respect, Sanford (pop. 53,500) is no worse than the rest of the country.
Whites here express mostly disbelief at the sudden portrayal of their town as a redoubt of racial discord, while blacks speak of enduring grievances and systemic discrimination.
“Until this latest incident, race didn’t seem to be a huge issue in Sanford,” insists Rachel Delinski, the 26-year-old editor of The Sanford Herald, who is white. “Even now, after it’s happened, I still think Sanford is a non-racist town.”
“I understand white folks saying that,” counters Turner Clayton, 59, head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “But there are blacks in this community who have lived through [racism]a long time.”
Mr. Clayton points to blacks’ distrust of the Sanford Police Department, which predates by far last month’s tragedy. Indeed, the last police chief left after an officer at first failed to prosecute the white attacker of a black homeless man.
The racial division extends, literally, to Sanford’s neighbourhoods.
“Wherever there is an ungated white community and blacks move in, the whites move out,” Mr. Clayton says. “They actually build these gated communities and price them so that blacks cannot live there.”
The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where Trayvon was gunned down, is home to a few black families and peace mostly reigned over the collection of modest town homes that, since the real-estate crash of 2008, go for about $100,000 each.
“It was a really good little neighbourhood before this,” insists resident Gina Kroger, 32. “I do think [the shooting]was an isolated incident.”
Trayvon was staying at the home of his father’s fiancée. He was on a 10-day suspension from his Miami high school, the result of traces of marijuana being found in his book bag. On Feb. 26, he had just returned to Twin Lakes with Skittles he bought at a 7-Eleven.
It is now up to a special prosecutor appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott to sort through the evidence and conflicting narratives of the clash that occurred that night between Trayvon and George Zimmerman, 28, the neighbourhood-watch volunteer.
A grand jury has been scheduled for April 10 to determine whether to charge Mr. Zimmerman, the son of a white father and a mother of Peruvian descent, although state attorney Angela Corey said this week she could proceed on her own in the case.
The federal Department of Justice has also opened an investigation to determine whether Trayvon’s civil rights were violated.
All this is not good or fast enough for black leaders such as Rev. Al Sharpton, who was in Sanford last week to demand seeing Mr. Zimmerman “in court with handcuffs behind his back.”
Black members in Congress have been just as trenchant. Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson said Trayvon was “hunted down like a rabid dog.” Georgia’s Hank Johnson said he was “executed for walking while black in a gated community.”
They are denounced by right-wing bloggers as “race baiters” seeking to exploit Trayvon’s death for political gain.
Mr. Obama dipped his toe in this cauldron of recrimination with his brief, but powerful, Mar. 23 assertion that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.” It marked a rare occasion when the President sought to make a point of his race before a national audience.
Since taking the Oval Office, Mr. Obama has pointedly avoided drawing attention to his race and repeatedly spurned calls from black leaders for policies directed specifically at blacks, who have experienced unemployment at twice the rate of whites since 2008.
But as the “I am Trayvon” movement mobilizes blacks nationally, Mr. Obama must decide whether his call for “some soul searching to figure out how something like this happens” is enough or whether he must lead a national conversation on race.
Chris Raines thinks Mr. Obama has done enough – for now. The 40-year-old railroad conductor from Ohio stopped by a memorial for Trayvon outside the gates of Twin Lakes, where empty Skittles packages poignantly underscore the senselessness of this tragedy.
“I actually think he got the ball rolling by addressing it,” Mr. Raines, who is black, says of Mr. Obama. “He’s letting the world know: ‘Hey, I’ve got my eye on this.’ ”
Indeed, Sanford feels his gaze – and much of the world’s – seemingly resigned to its name being henceforth consigned to the company of Selma and Birmingham in the annals of racial disharmony.
“This has changed the town for a long time,” laments Kathryn Cabral, 61, a white paralegal. “People everywhere are going to have a bad taste in their mouth just at the mention of Sanford.”