With George Zimmerman found not guilty of in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the city of Sanford, Florida, is now bracing for the possibility of tensions boiling over into widescale demonstrations or even rioting.
The six-person jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder on Saturday, the second day of deliberations. Shortly before the verdict was announced the jury had sought clarification from the judge about the manslaughter charge it also could consider, but in the end acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges.
When the case went to the jury on Friday, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith held a joint press conference with Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger calling for residents to use the case as a chance for debate and exchange of ideas rather than demonstration. But they also said they were prepared to take action if it grew into something more.
“We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law,” Eslinger said.
The Trayvon Martin case has already raised tensions, even before George Zimmerman was found not guilty. The Sanford Police Department waited 44 days before deciding to charge Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch leader who believed Martin to be a burglar.
Nationwide protests called for his arrest, with hashtags like #JusticeForTrayvon becoming popular on Twitter. The cause even drew in celebrities like LeBron James and Jamie Foxx, who donned hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with Trayvon, which he wore the night he was killed.
Leaders in the Sanford community tried to ease tensions ahead of the verdict.
“It’s all right to be vocal, but we don’t want to be violent,” said the Rev. Walter Richardson, pastor and chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Community Relations Board, which has been holding town-hall style meetings about the case. “We’ve already lost one soul and we don’t want to lose any more.”
Nationwide leaders have also joined the call asking angry supporters not to riot after George Zimmerman was found not guilty. Rev. Jesse Jackson said rioting would send the wrong message, and people must fight for justice in other ways.