Sanford needs cooler heads to prevail

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Today marks the start of the George Zimmerman trial — and the beginning of the end for Sanford.

At least that's the apocalyptic prophecy in wide circulation from brilliant Internet social commentators with such colorful aliases as Tray von Thugmeister:

WHEN they find the Good George Zimmerman not guilty and acquit him of the [trumped up] charges, blacks will raze the city of Sanford, Florida. Actually, the riots will probably be nationwide, but Florida will be ground zero. … The 1992 L.A. riots won't hold a candle to what's coming.

Sheesh.

Sanford's been beaten with both ends of the stereotype stick. First, outsiders typecast it as a city teeming with white racists after police initially failed to arrest Zimmerman. Now, the Internet's brainiacs see Sanford as an urban jungle with tribes of African-Americans lacking any impulse control, awaiting a not-guilty verdict to set the city aflame.

Such narrow-minded musings crawl out from under grotesque precedent: Los Angeles burned 21 years ago after a jury acquitted four white LAPD cops who mistook suspect Rodney King for a black piñata.

Not that bigots are alone in contemplating catastrophe in Sanford.

City Administrator Norton Bonaparte, who is black, recently told The Associated Press, "History has shown it [violence] can happen if people feel justice isn't served."

Fringy whispers of "payback" should justice fail were rumored to have circulated weeks ago. In other words, should the jury acquit Zimmerman of second-degree-murder charges in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, there would be trouble.

Social media haven't helped, with virtual lynch mobs demanding the neighborhood watchman's head on a pike.

Madness.

Members of Sanford's black community cannot afford to let a disputed verdict provoke a violent, self-fulfilling prophecy born of low expectations, no matter how much they are goaded or how much they perceive that the defense has tarred Trayvon's character.

Such rashness would sabotage a city reputation still in rehab.

It would scuttle gains made in Sanford's effort to confront racial tensions through community town-hall meetings, a new community-relations office and broadened police outreach and oversight.

It would punish merchants who put people to work.

And it would give the doomsayers a delicious "told ya so" satisfaction.

It's something that was denied them last year after many predicted enraged throngs of blacks would take to the streets with pitchforks and torches because Zimmerman wasn't arrested right away.

Yet, during spirited marches and protests, blacks from all over Central Florida and beyond were passionate, peaceful and restrained.

The demonstrations ceased after he was charged, and the justice system was given the chance to work — which is all protesters wanted all along.

Among Sanford residents there is hopeful expectancy. Most expect calm — regardless of the verdict. But they hope to God they're right.

"The Sanford community has been at peace since the arrest of George Zimmerman," says Francis Oliver, founder of the Goldsboro Westside Historical Museum. "Justice will come to Sanford without burning down our homes or our city."

I think she's right.

However, the real fear around Sanford centers on outsiders trying to kick-start unrest.

"Most riots," Oliver reminds, are "spontaneous."

Sanford's African-American community has much to be proud of in how it has responded so far to such a combustible situation. There's no reason to believe that will change.

deowens@tribune.com or 407-420-5095

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