More than 25,000 people filled Fort Mellon Park in Sanford, Florida on Thursday night to protest the lack of an arrest in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Just a few miles away, some residents of the upscale Retreat at Twin Lakes housing complex, where Trayvon was killed, were still trying to figure just how much of a role a string of small burglaries and long-held stereotypes played in the teenager’s death.
According to several homeowners who live at the Retreat, many of the well-groomed townhomes were robbed and vandalized last year by what some say was “a gang of young black men.” Many now believe those robberies set the stage for a young man’s death—and international outrage over it.
“I was told by a neighbor of ours last year that the men causing our problems were black,” said 35-year-old Jackie Mathews, who lives with her brother in the complex. “They told me to avoid young black men at all times and to call the police if I saw a group of them in the complex.’’
Sanford police received nearly 15 reports of burglary and theft from Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners last year.
Trayvon Martin probably wasn’t aware of the rash of crimes in the complex that housed his father, his father’s girlfriend, and his baby brother, when he set out for a bag of Skittles and iced tea on the last day of his life.
And he’d likely have no way of knowing that the Neighborhood Watch leader, George Zimmerman, would see him walking home from the store that February night, deem him suspicious, and call the police. He’d have no way of knowing what would happen next to him, or that his name would soon be known the world over.
“How could anyone look at that baby’s face and think he was a criminal? How could they just see him as black, and not as somebody’s child,” said Marion Evans, Trayvon’s grandmother.
Zimmerman identified the young man as African-American and followed him even though the police despatcher asked him not to. An altercation occurred, and Trayvon Martin ended up dead from a gunshot wound to the chest, falling on the property’s lawn. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and has not been arrested.
In the wake of national outrage over the teenager’s death and the handling by the the Sanford Police Department afterwards, Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. has taken a temporary leave from his position, as of Thursday.
Though Trayvon Martin’s parents say they warned their son of the many dangers facing young black man in United States, they also acknowledge that they never believed the color of his skin would cause his death.
“Trayvon was killed because he was black boy whose life didn’t matter to the police or Zimmerman,” says the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump. “It didn’t matter what he was doing or why. He was black and that automatically meant he was criminal. If one black man is stealing, all black men are stealing.”
Some reports suggest Zimmerman uttered racial insults at the teenager before the altercation. The Justice Department is currently investigating the shooting to determine if it was a hate crime.
While Zimmerman’s father and one other resident of Twin Lakes adamantly deny the 28-year-old had issues with people of color given his own Latino background, others at the complex said Zimmerman’s primary focus as neighborhood watch leader was on young black men and crime.
“I definitely think he had some kind of hangup with blacks,” said one male resident who knew Zimmerman and didn’t want to be identified. “He would follow and report anyone black who came in the complex, and it didn’t matter how old or young they were, or what they were doing. I just didn’t think he’d take it too far.”
The resident said he also felt that Zimmerman received a “rush of power” from reporting those he deemed ‘undesirable.”
“I think he felt like he was protecting us from the ‘bad people,’” said the resident. “I think he thought he could handle them without the police.’’
As many of the residents of The Retreat at Twin Lakes expressed outrage and sadness at the death of the high school student, they said they also feel their lives have been changed forever as well.
“I can’t even walk over on that side of the complex anymore,’’ said one female resident. “It sends chills up my spine to know someone’s baby was shot to death for no reason. Not sure how long I’ll live here after this.’’