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Two Men, One City, and a World of Human Failings

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Central Florida is back in the national news, and once again, it is for something terrible.

I know the city of Sanford very well. It is the sort of place that resembles the Northeast or Upper Midwest far more than it does the Sunshine state. A depressed port locale with an enriching history, completed by well worn cobblestone streets, it has an atmosphere all its own. The marina downtown draws tourists for its sheer size, and the surrounding waterfront boasts views rivaled only by those closer to the ocean. Beyond this, though, Sanford is one of the most demographically diverse areas one can imagine. A few years back, Banco Popular of Puerto Rico even moved a huge office out there.

As a born and (mostly) raised central Floridian, I have not personally seen nor heard about much racial tension in Sanford. It is not a city run by stereotypical Dixie bigots, nor does it have such a culture. As a matter of fact, it serves as the northernmost edge of Orlando’s suburbs, though in many respects Sanford is large enough to have suburbs of its own. What I am trying to say is this; the city is not some hellhole in which those of varying ethnic backgrounds walk around in search of a fight. Politically speaking, it is quite moderate in that Democrats and Republicans have routinely been elected to public office with little fuss. In short, it is a quintessential slice of the American rust belt with a few nice palm trees thrown in.

It’s a shame that the media have neglected to portray Sanford in this manner. Judging from many reports, it’s just another backwoods Mississippi hamlet, but with a populace so volatile and police force so corrupt that they recall images of Detroit in 1968. This, of course, comes in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting at the hands of a self-styled neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Because Martin was Black and Zimmerman is reported to be Latino, an unfortunate racial element has been thrown into the mix.

Needless to say, Martin cannot be blamed for his death; he was unarmed, after all. To make matters exponentially worse, Zimmerman shot him in the back; why he did this remains unclear. Many are in fits because Zimmerman is apparently protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” law, an overreaching state statute that allows a person to harm another if he or she simply feels threatened. The usual profiteers of peril, Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson amongst them, have crawled out of the woodwork and are currently fanning the flames with an impassioned zeal.

Beyond this, though, the shooting has opened up an entirely unexpected can of worms.

On Friday morning, veteran television reporter Geraldo Rivera remarked that the teenager’s wearing of a hoodie almost definitely had something to do with his demise. Why? Because hoodies are a garment of choice for street thugs and other criminal elements. It is a simple reality that young men walking through an urban setting in such attire, especially during an unseasonably warm spring, are likely to be profiled for gangsterism. As media expert Marshall McLuhan sagely observed years ago, “the medium is the message.”

Of course, the media and the keyboard warriors of social networking immediately pounced on Rivera for highlighting the facts. No reasonable rebuttal, to my knowledge, has been offered, but what does that matter at a time when all too many are ready to riot? One can imagine what might have happened had Martin been walking down the block dressed in jeans and a golf shirt. For starters, Zimmerman would probably not have felt threatened. If there were no perceived threat, then the events which led up to the gunfire would not have come to pass.

Rivera also mentioned that to prevent more tragedies, it would be best for the parents of ethnic minorities to monitor how their children dress. It’s lamentable that people of all races profile those around them on such criteria, but ignorance is ignorance. Over the summer, Michael Nutter, the ever superb Mayor of Philadelphia, told inner city black teens that their garb often promotes horrid stereotypes and makes it difficult for them to assimilate into the mainstream of society. A few months later, he scored a resounding reelection victory, proving once again the enduring appeal of ordinary common sense.

The armchair crusaders, professional activists, and profiteers of peril may never join the rest of us down on Planet Earth, but, by taking adequate precautions we can work toward a future in which incidents like the Trayvon Martin tragedy are as rare as they should be. At any rate, common sense is something that is desperately needed. Things have gotten so bad for local law enforcement officers that the chief of police and his family have received death threats. What should be a routine police procedural matter has become a buzzword of pop culture.

It is interesting that so many who harshly criticize Zimmerman’s vigilante tactics seem perfectly fine with turning them on him. Neighbors and others who knew the man say that he was no bigot and actually used a great deal of personal time to help others in his community, regardless of their respective races. To me, George Zimmerman could have been any scared man in any seedy setting who is too reactionary and too trigger happy for his own good. His story, along with Trayvon Martin’s, resembles a plot straight out of Cold Case or Homicide: Life on the Streets. This is because it pertains to a fundamental problem that is not ethnic, racial, classist, or geographic, but purely human in nature.

After this sad episode vanishes from the headlines, the city of Sanford will still remain standing; albeit under the possible burden of an ugly stigma for a long time to come. My hope is that those living in the city can move on and continue to strive for a better future. Though it is depressed, Sanford has a distinct wealth of urban heritage and is in the process of renovating itself. I dearly hope that this can resume after the satellite vans, camerapersons, newspaper reporters, and professional activists have departed. Perhaps in some way, this darkly human saga can bring the people of Sanford together. Taking the alternatives into account, this would be their best route.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Igor

    Good post, Glenn.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And here’s a very interesting observation about the world from the black perspective:

    Miki Straughan recounted a story from 50 years ago in New Orleans where she hired a woman to help with her ironing. After lunch one day, Straughan’s blond, blue-eyed, five-year-old daughter played with the black woman’s 4-year-old grandson.
    The grandmother proceeded to tell her adorable, chubby little black grandson NOT to get on the swing, NOT to touch the little white girl, Not to push her too hard on the swing. Not to run after her.

    I said, “For heaven’s sake, he’s just a little boy.” I never forgot her response. She said: “You’re going back to Seattle but he has to live here .?.?. and I’m saving his life.”

  • Glenn Contrarian
  • I hate hoodies! Not because they convey any sense of menace at all but simply because, along with tee shirts, jeans and long hair with a parting in the middle, they are an offence against fashion and good taste!

  • Lis

    It saddens me that no one has spoken up in defense of hoodies. I fear that all the comments have probably gone to Warren (not the actor) Beatty.

    Mr. Cotto, learn to walk in others’ shoes. It would do you well, and us even more so.

  • Lis

    Do you feel threatened, anyone, by seeing me in a hoodie? I would like to know.

  • Lis

    I fail to understand Mr. Cotto’s, and Geraldo Rivera’s, fixation on the hoodie. So many teens, children, and adults I know – of all walks of life – wear hooded sweatshirts that I simply cannot understand how anyone can justify thinking “thug” when seeing one. And I absolutely cannot abide by anyone justifying what happened by writing such trite drivel as this. Seriously.

    What happened was wrong. Period.

  • I agree that the whole mess is depressing at many levels. The mass media are making the most of it, with few facts but great gusto. Whether it was a race or hate crime does not seem to be important, provided that it can be portrayed as one.