Just over a week after she attended a rally calling for the arrest of the man who shot Trayvon Martin to death, Tonnetta Foster says she checked her mail at the corner box as she does every couple of days, and found this letter.
The letter, dated March 28th, and sent without a return address, was addressed to her home. The writer addressed her by her first name.
“Tonetta,” it read, “I am forwarding you a copy of a letter that has been sent to the NAACP. I thought that, since you were at the rally on March 19 against Mr. Zimmerman, you might be interested to know the type of man he is. The four page attachment is a copy of the flyer that George distributed to the local churches in support of your brother.”
WATCH theGRIO’s JOY-ANN REID DISCUSS THE LETTER WITH MSNBC’s MARTIN BASHIR:
The letter to Foster is signed “The Zimmerman family.”
Foster’s brother is Sherman Ware, who in December 2010 was beaten up by Justin Collison, the son of a Sanford police lieutenant. The failure of police officers to arrest Collison that night, or indeed for weeks, until a cellphone video of the drunken Collison cold cocking Ware, who was homeless at the time, went viral on YouTube, prompting a public outcry that would eventually result in Collison pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and being sentenced to probation — while forcing the then police chief, Brian Tooley, into retirement a month early.
Foster said the letter would not dissuade her from speaking out, or from calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. “I can’t say what he [Zimmerman] distributed or what he didn’t. I never saw him before in my life, and if he did, ‘thank you,’ it that doesn’t change the fact that I believe he should be arrested for killing Trayvon Martin,” she said by telephone Thursday
Attached to the brief note to Foster is a second, two page letter addressed to Turner Clayton, a former sheriff’s deputy and the head of the Sanford branch of the NAACP (though the letter is addressed to the NAACP’s national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. The tone of the NAACP-directed letter is much tougher, claiming that while “the events of February 26, 2012 are tragic,” Zimmerman “has been in hiding for his life because of the death threats made against him by the black community.”
The letter cites “an unprecedented rush to judgment” in which Zimmerman has, in the writer’s words, “has been called a racist and a bigot and there are very few who have stood up for him,”
“The black community as a whole has turned their backs and blindly followed the furor stirred up by leaders of your community,” the letter continues, adding, in an apparent reference to the shooting, “sometimes tragic things happen and there are ALWAYS two sides to every story. As African-Americans you can surely identify with that.”
The letter, which is quickly making the rounds of conservative media and blogs, goes on to cite the Ware beating, which the writer said “sparked outrage in the commits but there were very few who stepped up to do anything about it.” Except of course, for George Zimmerman, who the writer claims “stepped up when no one else in the black community would.”
“Do you know who spent tireless hours putting flyers on the cars of persons parked in the churches in the black community? Do you know who waited for the church-goers to get out of church so he could hand them fliers [sic] in an attempt to organize the black community against this horrible miscarriage of justice? Do you know who helped organize the City Hall meeting on January 8th, 2011 at Sanford City Hall? That person was GEORGE ZIMMERMAN.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Zimmerman’s brother Robert repeated the account in the letter during an appearance on Fox News’ Sean Hannity program.
TheGrio left telephone messages for Zimmerman’s attorneys, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, seeking comment as to whether the letter indeed came from a Zimmerman family member. Sonner has said Robert Zimmerman has not spoken to his brother George in years.
The letter goes on to demand that Clayton “end the race issue in this matter and call for cooler heads to prevail,” warning that “if something happens to George as a result of this race furor stirred up. This mischaracterization of George there will be blood on your hands as well as the rest of the racists that have rushed to judgement,” and adding, “you need to call off the dogs. Period. PUBLICLY AND SWIFTLY.”
The letter to Clayton is signed: “A Concerned Zimmerman Family Member.”.
Reached for comment Friday, Clayton said that neither he nor the national office of the NAACP ever received a letter, though he has gotten several calls about it over the last couple of days.
Clayton said that whether the letter is authentic or not, the allegations in it are not true.
“We never referred to anybody as a racist,” he said. “All of that is coming from his side,” he added, referring to Zimmerman’s family and supporters.
As for whether he recalls a January 8, 2011 meeting at city call, or Zimmerman’s presence organizing the black community, Clayton said, “No, and I don’t think anybody else does either.”
The letter closes by saying the writer “will not be providing my name because all of our family is in hiding and frankly scared by the threats from the black community,” with the words “black community” underlined.
Ware’s attorney at the time of the Collison uproar was Natalie Jackson, now one of the lawyers representing Trayvon Martin’s parents. Speaking to theGrio by phone, Jackson called the tone and content of the letter outrageous, and referred to a letter in which she sharply rebutted the writer.
“I am incensed by some of the efforts to publicly tear our community and make the tragic death of Trayvon Martin as simplistic as a race issue,” Jackson wrote.
Calling the purported Zimmerman family letter “pure propaganda,” Jackson wrote that it “has done a disservice to Zimmerman.”
“Instead of appealing to equality and reason as the Martin family has done by demanding a lawful arrest and fair trial of George Zimmerman, the author of this letter has intentionally chosen to promulgate racist rhetoric, lump the entire black community into a homogeneous group incapable of individual thought, and portray George Zimmerman as the individual who “stepped up when no one in the black community would” to save Sherman Ware. Statements made in this letter are not only insulting, they are blatant Lies! [sic].”
The pastors of three of Sanford’s largest black churches said they never saw flyers distributed at their churches in relation to the Ware case.
Rev. Valerie Houston, whose church, Allen Chapel AME has been the site of candlelight vigils and an NAACP public hearing touched off by the Trayvon Martin case, said she doesn’t remember ever seeing flyers, or hearing about a community meeting last January 8th.
Houston said she reached Pastor Paul Wright of Calvary Temple by phone to ask him, and he hadn’t heard of the flyers either.
Pastor H.D. Rucker of First Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, who hosted the March 22 rally organized by Rev. Al Sharpton (who hosts a nightly program on MSNBC which like theGrio is a division of NBC News) which drew some 50,000 people said he had never heard about such flyers, and had neither seen nor heard of George Zimmerman before the Trayvon Martin case became major news.
The pastors were also skeptical of the idea that Zimmerman was actively organizing the black community around Ware’s cause.
“The only way I know him now is seeing him on television,” Rucker said of Zimmerman. “The other ministers I know, we were talking about that yesterday and they don’t remember that either.”
“My church is about four blocks from where the [Ware] incident happened,” Rucker said. “And I feed the homeless every Thursday. so if he was passing out flyers, somewhere along the line you would think he would have passed out flyers there.”
As for the letter: “I think they’re trying to dispel the fact that it was a hate crime,” Rucker said.
Velma Williams, the lone black Sanford commissioner, said she does “remember people being in an uproar” about Collison initially going free last January. “And that’s the only reason he was arrested.” But she says she never saw any flyers regarding the case, and has never seen Mr Zimmerman before, nor does she recall him organizing the black community or even being present at commission meetings.
Flyers addressed Tooley, not Ware
Indeed, the attachment to the letters lays out a lengthy case, not about the attack upon Mr Ware, but about the conduct of then-chief Brian Tooley, accusing him of an “illegal cover up” in the Collison case. The undated, multi-page document, which includes the transcript of a local news report about the case, never mentions Mr. Ware, except in a nameless reference to an “innocent, homeless and peacekeeping bystander.” It extensively attacks Tooley, then-Capt. Jerry Hargrett, who became the interim police chief after Tooley announced his early retirement on January 3rd, and the alleged “preferential treatment” received by “Lieutenant Colison’s son.
And it calls on the reader to attend a “workshop and open forum” to be convened by then commission chairman-elect Mark McCarty on January 8, 2011, with what the letter calls “the three continuing members of the commission,” including the mayor-elect, Jeff Triplet.
Reached for comment, McCarty said he doesn’t recall seeing any regarding the Collison case. And because he had just been elected in November 2010, McCarty said his first commission meeting would have been on January 10, 2011.
Indeed, the city’s record and minutes of public meetings at Sanford city hall show that no meeting or workshop took place on January 8th.
January 8th was a Saturday, which would have been an unusual day to convene a commission meeting,particularly without all five elected members.
McCarty said the January 3rd special meeting called by the then- outgoing mayor, Linda Kuhn, was for the sole purpose of creating a process to pick a new chief of police. Ware is not mentioned in the minuted of either the January 3rd or January 10th commission meetings.
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport