TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Crime & Courts

Tampa area braces for reaction to Zimmerman verdict


Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 09:26 AM

TAMPA - For three weeks, the TV at Dianne Hart's beauty salon in East Tampa has been locked on George Zimmerman's trial.

While Hart's clients get their hair done, she and they watch the prosecution and defense attack witnesses in the trial in which Zimmerman is accused of second-degree murder in last year's shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

"It's the topic of the day," said Hart, 58, who owns Ms. Dee's World of Beauty and is the chief executive officer for the nonprofit East Tampa Business and Civic Association. "The community is hoping that he's charged with something."

As the trial nears its end, Hart and her clients also are wondering what the reaction will be in Sanford, in the state and across the nation if Zimmerman is acquitted.

"Everybody is wondering, will this spur riots across the country if this man is let go," said Hart, the former president of the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus. "People are very concerned that if something does not happen, (people) will take to the streets.

"I hate to think what will occur," she said. "I think it will spur some riots around the country. That is a real fear."

Hart isn't the only one concerned about what might happen.

Gov. Rick Scott said on Thursday that he has been in touch with law enforcement agencies throughout Florida and they're prepared for "whatever happens" with the verdict.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is working with the Sanford Police Department and the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. The Orange County Sheriff's Office said it is prepared to assist.

On Thursday, the Sarasota Police Department held a news conference with local leaders, asking the community not to react with violence after the verdict is announced.

In South Florida, officials also are taking steps. Martin was from Miami Gardens and was visiting his father and his father's fiancee in Sanford when the confrontation with Zimmerman occurred in February 2012.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office has released public service announcements encouraging people to protest peacefully, and the Miami-Dade Police Department plans to create zones where people can gather to demonstrate peacefully once the verdict is announced.

The Tampa Police Department also has reached out to community leaders. Police Chief Jane Castor has spoken to NAACP officials, and police supervisors and patrol officers have communicated with civic leaders, said Laura McElroy, a police spokeswoman. "We don't expect any issues, but, of course, we are prepared," she said. "We realize it's an emotional topic and people might have a passionate response."

Tampa police plan to have normal staffing the day the verdict is reached but are prepared to bring in extra officers if needed, McElroy said.

"At this point we don't expect any trouble," she said.

St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office officials said they are monitoring the case but don't have a plan.

In October 1996, St. Petersburg was thrust into the national spotlight when a white St. Petersburg police officer fatally shot black motorist TyRon Lewis. A riot broke out the night of the shooting. A second riot broke out the next month when a grand jury declined to indict the officer.

"We don't anticipate any violent reaction to any jury decision one way or the other," said Mike Puetz, a St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman.

Curtis Stokes, a former Hillsborough County NAACP president, said he expects peaceful protests - not riots - if Zimmerman is acquitted.

"I think it's overblown," said Stokes, 44, of Tampa. "Naturally, people are going to be upset. I don't see the widespread rioting. It's 2013. I think the African-American community is beyond rioting. We're for peaceful protest."

Stokes finds it offensive that people think the black community will riot if it doesn't get a guilty verdict.

"I think they go there because it's the easy thing to point to," Stokes said. "They always associate rioting with African-Americans."

"At the end of the day, we're a nation of laws," he said. "Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. No one rioted when Casey Anthony got off."

Michelle Patty remembers the riots in Tampa in 1967 after a white Tampa police officer fatally shot 19-year-old Martin Chambers, who was black, while investigating a burglary near downtown Tampa. The shooting sparked three days of riots and looting.

"It created the worst riot this city has ever seen," Patty said. "I never wanted to see anything like that anywhere."

She fears rioting could occur if Zimmerman is acquitted.

There's high unemployment and teenagers who can't find work, Patty said. Many blacks are frustrated because they feel African-Americans get stiffer prison sentences, Patty said. African-Americans also empathize with the Martin family, she said.

"There is a lot of pent-up frustration," said Patty, who owns a medical referral service and is bishop-elect of Legacy Fellowships of Churches and Ministries, based in Tampa "It can erupt over something like this."

"Right now we're sitting on a powder keg," she said. "A lot of people feel there's no justice when it comes to an African-American male."

Patty, who raised three boys who are now adults, said that when she sees Martin's photo she imagines the fear and terror he must have felt.

"He didn't know what this man was going to do," said Patty, 59. "What was going on in his mind, and this man was trailing him?"

State Rep. Darryl Rouson doesn't think there will be rioting if Zimmerman is acquitted.

"Elements of the community have moved beyond that," said Rouson, 58. "There's an appropriate way to express disappointment other than resorting to lawlessness.

"No matter what happens with the verdict, we must respect the system of justice," he said. "As flawed as it is because of the human element, it still remains the greatest in the world."

He applauds the law enforcement agencies that have taken the initiative to communicate with their communities. There is tension that started last year when the incident occurred, but communication can help diffuse the lingering stress, he said.

"If George Zimmerman is found not guilty, there will be hard feelings in segments of the black community," said Rouson, a former president of the NAACP in St. Petersburg who in 1981 became the first black prosecutor hired in Pinellas County.

But riots can't be the answer, Rouson said. An appropriate response, he said, might be constructive protests similar to the ones that rose throughout the nation when people sought charges against Zimmerman.

"The world is watching. The community is watching," he said.

jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments