As the nation waits for the jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman, community leaders in Florida are in place, prepared for a big public reaction.
Government and law enforcement officials say they’re hoping for the best with any demonstrations that may come after the verdict. But they’re also preparing for the worst – rising tensions that could escalate violently.
An ‘Opportunity’ For Peace?
After the jury for was released on Friday to begin deliberations, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith and Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger appeared before cameras at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.
Eslinger said he expects the Sanford community to react peacefully to the verdict, even encouraging local businesses to not disrupt operations and residents to go about their lives normally. But he also warned, “We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law.”
Smith described the waiting period for a verdict as a “trying time,” as well as an opportunity “to speak our piece peacefully, to come together peacefully and when you leave here, you leave here peacefully.”
But if peace does not come after the verdict is announced, local law enforcement does have a response plan in place. Smith told NPR that there will be an increased police presence on the streets of Sanford in the coming days.
‘A Butterfly In The Stomach’
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett says an uneasy feeling is to be expected in town right now. “There’s a nervous anxiety, almost a butterfly in the stomach,” he explains.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin, tensions have run high in parts of Sanford and around the country as communities grappled over issues of race, profiling and Stand Your Ground laws that surround the case.
So far, though, Triplett says Sanford has been clear of tensions turning into violence, but he adds, “You have to be prepared for it. You’d be stupid not to prepare for it.”
In South Florida, communities more than 200 miles away from Sanford are also preparing. In Miami, officials plan to set up a special protesting zone. In Broward County, the sheriff’s office produced public service announcements, encouraging the public to “Raise your voice! And not your hands!”
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel says his team is drawing lessons in part from the widespread unrest sparked by the 1992 L.A. riots. “We understand that the world will be watching to see how South Florida responds to the verdict,” he says.
NPR’s Maureen Chowdhury and Diane Jeanty contributed to this report.