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Sanford Under The Spotlight As Trial Begins


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas about his new film, "Documented." It's about his personal experience as an undocumented person in the U.S. and through that, a broader look at the entire debate over immigration. That's later. But first, we want to talk about another intensely emotional story that many people are talking about and for that we head to Sanford, Florida. That of course, is the town where the self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin last year. After an investigation that many people felt went on too long, George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. Jury selection began this week and now it's been announced that the jury will be sequestered for the duration of the trial. And as we mentioned, this case has drawn intense interest and reaction from around the country. But we found ourselves wondering what this whole experience has been like for the people who live there. So we called the mayor of Sanford, Jeff Triplett, and he's with us now. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JEFF TRIPLETT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You'd been the mayor for a little over a year when this happened. Do you mind if I ask, what went through your mind when you heard?

TRIPLETT: A little bit of shock, to be honest with you. You know, there's no handbook for what transpired. And when I heard, the exact line was that the train has left the station and there's nothing you can do to stop it, when, you know, we heard people were coming to our town. It was a gut check moment, to be honest with you.

MARTIN: Gut check, how? What do you mean by that?

TRIPLETT: Because we weren't prepared for what was going to transpire. There was a lot of unknowns. We, you know, one day we're a small town in central Florida of, you know, about 55,000 people and the next day, we have 30 media trucks from all around the nation and broadcasting around the world about, you know, what was transpiring in our town.

MARTIN: You know, not long after the shooting, we caught up with Congresswoman Corinne Brown. She represents Florida's fifth district, used to be the third, where Sanford is located. And this is what she said when she first heard about this.


CORRINE BROWN: One constituent came to Washington, and you know, I met him at the airport, but he had been to my office to tell me about it, white male. I'm fighting parents concerned, brothers, sisters. It's a community that is very upset as to how this matter has been handled.

MARTIN: You know, in our broader conversation, Congresswoman Brown seemed to be saying that at first, she didn't see it as necessarily a racial issue. For those who don't remember, George Zimmerman is a light-skinned Hispanic, some might say a white Hispanic, and Trayvon Martin is African-American. So it's taken on racial overtones. She says that wasn't necessarily the case at the beginning. Do you agree?

TRIPLETT: I think that's a good comment. At the first, it was parents concerned that, you know, the investigation wasn't transpiring and making sure that, you know, it wasn't just going to be swept under the carpet. So I think that's a fair statement.

MARTIN: But do you feel that now it really has become polarized along racial lines? Or do you still feel that perhaps that oversimplifies the case where you are?

TRIPLETT: I think it oversimplifies it a little bit. You know, it's almost like the bell curve. It started out as, you know, upset parents and upset community, you know, as here's a young man that's been, has been killed, you know, saying that he's murdered and the shooter hasn't been put away or hasn't - isn't going - doesn't look like he's going to go to a jury of his peers. And then it took on this whole racial overtone. But you know, as we sit right now in the city of Sanford, it's almost more of, this is what the demonstrations were for. We wanted him to sit in front of a jury of his peers and that's what's transpired. I think it's opened up a whole lot of dialogue across the nation for race relations though. It's almost, as we talk, it's almost that there was that, you know, festering wound underneath the scab and this kind of pulled that scab off the top and let a lot of thoughts and history come out as to, you know, race relations, relations between the community and police departments, not just in Sanford, but in a lot of small and medium-sized communities around the nation.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. Is there something that you've learned or heard in the course of this that you just didn't know before, even though this is your town?

TRIPLETT: You know, I was talking with one of the pastors yesterday and, you know, one of the African-American pastors, and you know, we were talking about his history and what he's seen and how when he found God that, in his early twenties, that what his feelings towards white people and how he'd been treated were let go. You know, that was one of the first things, that kind of animosity, that hatred. You know, that's one of the things that went away for him. And I told him, you know, as a white male, I can't walk in your shoes, pastor, but I can walk next to you. And what we have a hard time doing in leadership positions when someone has a problem, or someone says, this is how I feel, we always say, well, here's what I'm going to do to correct that. We don't listen and I think one of the great things that we've learned through all of this is we've said, how can I understand what you're saying, how can we work to the solution together. And so a lot of that is happening in our community, a lot of listening and a lot of, you know, a lot of healing going on and getting that off a lot of people's chests as to how they feel. And we're working down the path to help try to tie in some, you know, take away the animosities or the lack of trust, not only between the police department in our communities but also the administration, city hall.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Jeff Triplett. He's the mayor of Sanford, Florida. That's where George Zimmerman is accused of shooting the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. His trial for second-degree murder is going on now. Mr. Mayor, what about other, what are you hearing from other people? I mean, I've been seeing in the local media that there, a lot of people on the African-American side are pleased because they feel that you're hearing them for the first time. As you mentioned, they're getting a chance to surface some feelings that they've had for a long time about the way they feel they've been treated by the police and by other people in the government. But what about other people? I mean, are there some people who feel that perhaps you're listening too much?

TRIPLETT: You know, you've always - that's the great thing about communities is you're always going to have people on either side of that table that think you're giving too much time to one or the other, or what have you. And you know, we, not only are we listening, you know, spending a lot of time in our African-American communities, you know, we did a community meeting in our historic district the other night. About a hundred residents showed up and they stated their issues. And our new police chief did a wonderful job of, you know, there's some crime issues, there, you know, it's summertime, there's a lot of teens on the streets. So some houses were being robbed and it was, it looked like it was the same people doing that. And he got out in front of it and said, listen, that was exactly one of the comments was, you're paying all this attention to these other communities, what about us? And he said, here's exactly what we're doing. And two days later, we caught the group that were doing those robberies. So it's really a balancing act and you're going to have that. But it's really about, you know, from the police department, the community support, everybody watching out for each other. And I think we've lost a little bit of that as time has gone on, you know, with the fences and locking of the doors and not watching out for your neighbor. And I think we're trying to get back. We're really pushing that from a community relations side is, we have to watch out for ourselves and our neighbors.

MARTIN: As you were saying at the beginning, you didn't really anticipate this when you ran for mayor. This wasn't really, kind of, part of your thought about what you'd be doing. But now that you are in the thick of this, how do you think this experience has changed you? And how do you think this experience will change the community there?

TRIPLETT: Well, you know, through tragedy you like to think that there's an opportunity and I've become, you know, in myself, I've always said that, you know, on decisions that you make, you've got to be able to look yourself in the mirror the next day and you got to be able to look yourself in the eye and say I did what was right for the community as a whole. And I think what I've really learned - you know, I grew up in a small town in Missouri. I've been down here about 20 years but, you know, what we learn from our parents is to do the right thing and if you're going to sit around and try to get things done, take a leadership role in that. And what I've learned is that you've really got to listen, not just hear people. But you have to listen and you have to create - you have to surround yourself with good people that are walking the same path as you. And I think we've really, for me personally, I think we're in a good position now with good people, you know, a lot of community support on what's happening, a lot of good visioning programs in the city of Sanford. And I really think that when we talk two or three years down the road as to what has transpired in the city of Sanford, that it'll become a key point for the nation as to how it needs to be done. That's what I'd like to see.

MARTIN: Well, you kind of stole my thunder there. That was going to be my final question, which is if you and I get together, say a year, two, three - let's say five years from now, whether you're still serving as mayor or not, or in some other capacity. What kind of conversation do you think we'll be having about Sanford?

TRIPLETT: Well, you know, I don't want this incident between two people to define what the city of Sanford is and, you know, there's a lot of things going on. We've got a lot of great people, you know, take a tragedy and create an opportunity. You know, some people say that any press is good press - we've had a lot of bad press but it's taught us a little bit of inner strength, you know, all the city commissioners have come together, you know, the community with the visioning process - where we want to be. And to say, this is where we were and it didn't happen overnight, you know, our city is 135 years old. We've got some skeletons in our closet, every city has skeletons in their closet if you have any age behind you, as a city. But we've identified those, we're not going to allow that to identify who we are as a nation. And here's what we've done from that point in time. You know, a lot of people have asked me, you know, what have you done over the last 16 months, you know, since the incident that happened in your town? There's no way to tell, but five years from now I'll have some identifiable points that say, this is who we are and here's the definition of where we're going right now. Where we stand right now and where we're going in the next 20 years, whether I'm in office or not.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Mayor, I hope we'll speak again.

TRIPLETT: Absolutely, thank you for the call.

MARTIN: Jeff Triplett is mayor of Sanford, Florida. He joined us by phone from his office there. Mr. Mayor, once again, thank you again for taking the time.

TRIPLETT: Have a good day.

MARTIN: Just ahead, it can be difficult to forge a new path in any religion, but it might be especially difficult if you're the daughter of a traditional faith leader, like an Orthodox rabbi.

RUTH BALINSKY FRIEDMAN: Any good parent worries about their child when they're going to do something new.

MARTIN: But Ruth Balinsky Friedman persevered and now she's about to become one of the first women trained as a faith leader in the Orthodox Jewish tradition. We'll find out more, that's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.