Leaders of Sanford, Florida’s black community, are bracing for the arrival of controversial pastor Terry Jones. The Gainesville preacher gained notoriety for publicly burning a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, last spring. Jones leads a church with fewer than 50 members, but the Quran stunt gained him international infamy after his actions led to widespread violence that is believed to have caused the deaths of two U.N. workers.
Now, Jones has set his sights on Sanford.
The radical pastor reportedly plans to hold a rally on April 21st outside the Seminole County Criminal Courthouse, in support of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin inside a townhome development in Sanford on February 26th.
A story in the Sanford Herald this week stated that Jones faults the media for portraying Zimmerman as guilty, rather than “innocent until proven guilty,” and the goal of his rally is to “support Zimmerman’s constitutional rights.”
It’s not known whether Jones is leading an organized effort, or if his plans are limited to his parishioners. Over the past two weeks, massive rallies have been held around the country, including one in Sanford March 23rd that attracted some 50,000 people.
Marches and demonstrations continued last weekend, in Sanford, Chicago, London and Miami (Trayvon Martin’s hometown), attracting thousands of people demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. An online petition on behalf of Martin’s parents has garnered more than 2 million signatures, also demanding that Zimmerman be taken into custody and charged in Martin’s killing.
Nearly a dozen black pastors and community leaders met with a Justice Department official Wednesday to raise alarms about Jones’ imminent visit, and to share their concerns about the general conduct of Sanford police.
A source tells theGrio one attendee called police “overly aggressive” in their interaction with residents of the city’s majority black neighborhoods. Another participant reportedly complained of harassment faced by black patrons who are found outside of eating establishments in the city’s majority black Goldsboro neighborhood, while restaurants in Sanford’s downtown areas are free to seat their patrons outdoors.
But it was the Trayvon Martin shooting that galvanized the meeting, theGrio learned, prompting fresh calls among a restive black community to have black victims of shootings treated with more deference by police. One participant in the meeting reportedly asked the Justice official, “when one of our kids gets shot, who gets dispatched?” — in a call for more diversity among the police sent to respond to crime scenes in the city.
Rev. Dr. Cedric Cuthbert, pastor of Historic St. James AME Church in the Georgetown neighborhood, told theGrio, after the meeting, that the purpose of the meeting was “community building among those who are in leadership positions, for those who are needing justice” in Sanford.
He said the intention of the meeting was to establish the clergy’s positions on issues the black community cares about, and to “look forward to the priorities that are necessary to maintain a movement, to rectify the injustices of the past, to address the historic racism and institutional problems that adversely affect people who are oppressed and to give voice to the voiceless.”
Cuthbert said it was important for the ministers to come together now, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, because “we are the local pastors, who have been here before the Trayvon killing and who will be here afterward, and so the responsibility to continue the work that has been begun in Sanford rests with us and our congregations.”
Dr. Sharon Patterson, Overseer of the Getting Your House in Order Ministries in Sanford, said the biggest concern raised during the meeting, “beyond Trayvon, is getting something done with the police department. Specifically, no rehiring of Chief [Bill] Lee.”
Patterson, a lifelong Sanford resident, said she would also like to see the city commissioner, Norton Bonaparte, dismissed.
“Because I do not think he is really standing up,” Patterson said, citing Bonaparte’s expression of support for Lee, even after the then-chief promoted five police officers, including one involved in the Trayvon Martin investigation, on the same day he stepped aside as chief.
Some participants in the meeting reportedly expressed concerns during the meeting that Jones’ rally could ignite racial tensions in the city — and that a clash over the Martin case along racial lines could lead to violence. Some black community leaders worry that Jones’ demonstration will attract counter-protests.
Commissioner Velma Williams, the lone black commissioner in Sanford, said most residents are unaware of Jones. “We have been very peaceful and calm,” Williams tells theGrio, “I don’t think the majority of people will even dignify his existence.”
Participants in the meeting were reportedly assured by the Justice Department official that there would be plenty of security in the area. The courthouse, located on the outskirts of Sanford, is also the headquarters of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department.
Zimmerman was released on the night of the shooting, after prosecutors conferred with Sanford police. A source told theGrio those consultations included State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, whose office has declined to comment, though it issued a statement blasting unnamed “lies” being spread in the media regarding the case. Wolfinger recused himself from the case in a letter to the governor March 23rd, the same day Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee announced he was “temporarily” stepping down. Lee previously stated? police did not have enough evidence to arrest Zimmerman, and that the police investigation bolstered Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense.
The case is now in the hands of a special prosecutor, Duval County State Attorney Angela Corey, who was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott after Lee stepped aside.
TheGrio has also learned that people inside the pastors’ meeting were told they could expect to be contacted by Justice officials “soon.”
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