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Black county officials plead for calm ahead of Zimmerman verdict

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Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 09:31 PM

TAMPA - A group of black elected Hillsborough officials pleaded with their constituents today to maintain calm no matter what verdict is decided in George Zimmerman's trial.

Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was visiting his father in a gated community. Zimmerman, who is white, claims he shot Martin in self defense because the teenager was beating him and Zimmerman feared for his life.

The trial's racial overtones have made it a sensation far beyond the city limits of Sanford, a small, central Florida community where the killing took place and the trial is being held. Judge Debra Nelson gave the jury final instructions this afternoon before they began deliberations.

In Hillsborough County, where the trial is being followed closely in African American neighborhoods, black leaders are clearly worried about the prospect for unrest, even riots, should Zimmerman be found innocent.

"Regardless of what happens, if the verdict comes back in anyway that a segment of this community feels that it should not have gone that way ... we ask for calm and peace," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller at the afternoon press conference.

"No violence, no turmoil, no destroying property in the community," Miller added.

The other black officials attending the conference shared much the same message. State Rep. Betty Reed pointed out that Martin's family had also urged black Americans to be peaceful, whatever the verdict.

"We should respect their wishes," Reed said.

The officials said they felt compelled to hold the press conference because constituents in their districts are also worried about the potential for violence, especially among restive youths who are out of school.

"It's a long, hot summer and our young people are out of school," said county school board member Dorothea Edgecomb, "and sometimes having nothing to do can make them stray to doing things that are unacceptable or maybe spontaneous."

Miller said the "racial overtones" of the Zimmerman-Martin case could create an atmosphere similar to 1967 when black neighborhoods were torn by riots after a white police officer shot an unarmed black man. He cited racist comments in a readers blog following a story on TBO.com about potential unrest among blacks if Zimmerman is found innocent.

"You would think after 1967 we wouldn't be in this position, but we are," Miller said.

The TBO/Tampa Tribune story cited reports that Gov. Rick Scott had been in contact with law enforcement agencies around the state, asking them to be prepared for "whatever happens." Police in Sarasota, Sanford and South Florida have appealed for calm through mass and social media.

Councilman Frank Reddick said his office had shared the officials' concerns with Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, who is out of town. Castor was aware the officials planned to have a news conference to address the matter, Reddick said.

"She is trying to get back in town this moment because a verdict can be rendered anytime this weekend," Reddick said of Castor.

Rather than riots, the officials said they hoped the Zimmerman trial will be used as a learning experience to prevent future tragedies, such as Martin's killing.

"This is an opportunity for this community to come together as a people," Miller said, "regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, religion or sexual orientation, to start discussions so we can make sure these types of incidents don't happen again."

Edgecomb added that her "hope and prayer is that the verdict will demonstrate justice, equality, objectivity and fairness at their best."

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303





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