Sanford, Fla., is a part of me. My hometown shaped me as much as my mother’s guidance and my father’s genes. Like any city with enough history, Sanford has its flaws. It has more poverty and crime than most of the bordering Orlando suburbs, and the high school dropout rates are embarrassing.
But Sanford taught me to accept people. It gave me friends of every color, race and income level. It molded the attitude I carried out of Florida and into my academic career at Yale. My best friend once said: “Sanford is the only place where any Ivy Leaguer has a beer with a convicted felon.”
Unfortunately, Sanford now stands as an icon of prejudice and discrimination. With the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, my hometown is ground zero for a debate that many hoped was no longer necessary. The city that taught me race doesn’t matter has proven to many Americans that it still does.
Our founding fathers cherished a fair court and a free press, but I doubt they wanted to merge the two. So let’s avoid a trial by the media and focus on what we know: George Zimmerman initiated an altercation with Trayvon Martin during which Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed teen. Zimmerman was a hyper-vigilant citizen with a concealed weapon and a self-assigned mission to stop crime in his community. The Sanford police did not charge Zimmerman with any crime, nor did they completely investigate the event before absolving him.
I don’t want to guess Zimmerman’s views on different races. I’ve never met the guy. But it is clear that he felt like his community was not well enough protected by the established law enforcement system, specifically the Sanford Police Department. That perception of inadequacy may have, in part, motivated him the night he shot Martin. The same police failures may have also ensured his freedom.
Supporters of Trayvon Martin should condemn vigilante justice, especially cowboy tactics that have armed men chasing their fellow civilians at night for little or no reason. They should argue that no one can take the law into his own hands and that doing so will, more often than not, result in tragedy. They should implore others to have patience and allow the justice system to do its work. They should suggest that Trayvon’s death illustrates the need for less street justice and more trust in police investigators.
But they would be wrong. The tragedy that demands stronger government justice simultaneously obliterates our trust in it. One night in Sanford perfectly highlighted both the destructive stupidity of vigilante justice and the gross incompetency of established local law enforcement. Any agency can make a mistake, but failing to correct this botched investigation hints at a systemic problem.
Now, racial tensions that barely existed in Sanford threaten to boil over. Angry — but mostly peaceful — crowds fill the streets from central Florida to Washington, D.C. The Black Panthers, the new poster-children for irony, have placed a bounty on Zimmerman’s head. The Sanford police would love to say “stand down, citizens, we have this under control,” but these days the department would be hard-pressed to find a believer.
This is how a city that once celebrated its diversity will, in the eyes of the nation, forever be stained by the filth of racism and injustice. Whether he is racist or not, George Zimmerman is only one man in a city of tens of thousands. Taken in isolation, he is an anomaly. However, the Sanford Police Department and the government that runs it have betrayed the trust of their citizens and forever sullied their names. If Zimmerman is a bad apple, the Sanford Police Department is a rotten tree.
So where do mourning friends and family turn? The unauthorized violence that has torn lives apart now, ironically, seems more tempting than ever.
The media and national discussion will continue to focus on the most titillating aspects of the story. They will debate Zimmerman’s ethnicity and the role of race in his motives that night. They will dissect Martin’s character and dispute the fairness of public perception. TVs will tune in, newspapers will sell and blogs will get millions of hits. Someone will get a book deal.
But the kinetic emotion flowing across the country may achieve something else. Maybe, people won’t have to choose between uncontrolled street justice and laughable law enforcement. Maybe a third option will emerge: fair and effective policing.
True, nothing the police could have done would have brought Martin back to life. Tragedy will always happen. But the least we can do is hold back the added insult of injustice.
Harrison Reed is a second-year student in the Yale Physician Associate Program.