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Sanford, Fla., Sighs In Relief And Looks Forward


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. After weeks of uncertainty and tension, this weekend in Sanford, Florida, the feeling - more than anything - is one of relief. For six weeks, the shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman hung over the small central Florida city. Special prosecutor Angela Corey's decision to arrest and charge Zimmerman with second degree murder reassured many that while the wheels of justice turn slowly, they're still reliable. From Sanford, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For now, George Zimmerman is in the Seminole County jail. His lawyer says he'll soon seek his release on bond. Zimmerman will be formally arraigned next month. After that, there will be motions and hearings. If there's a trial, it will not begin for several months at least. In the meantime, for the city of Sanford, there's much to do to repair the damage caused by the shooting. Sanford's City Manager Norton Bonaparte says he's asked the Justice Department to investigate the city's police force, in the hope Sanford can begin to put questions about race behind it. But Bonaparte said city officials are pleased that George Zimmerman was charged.

NORTON BONAPARTE: Certainly there's a sense of relief. But more importantly, we still have a city here - a great city. And we're looking at working with the representatives from the United States Department of Justice and the community relations service in helping us to take the next steps and make this an even better community.

ALLEN: Long before the Trayvon Martin shooting, Sanford was a city with racial issues, where many in the African-American community distrusted the police. That distrust is still here. But Valerie Houston, pastor of Allen AME Church in Sanford says the arrest and charges filed against George Zimmerman have helped ease the tension.

VALERIE HOUSTON: Well, I feel like there's some peace and some rest because now we'll get to the truth and I think that's all anybody ever wanted, was truth. We thank God for the parents even feeling that way and I even feel like Trayvon's soul is resting better now.

ALLEN: That sense of relief is palpable in the churches and also along First Street in Sanford's historic downtown.

THEO HOLLERBACH: We got a grill over here. We got some spaetzle, sausages on the grill and so on.

ALLEN: Theo Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe is usually busy. He sells German food, lunch and dinner, complete with steins of beer and many evenings an Oompah band. He opened his restaurant here 10 years ago as Sanford was beginning to spruce up its somewhat faded downtown. The city put in parks, a walkway along the lakefront and pedestrian-friendly streets and sidewalks. Hollerbach says the town's fortunes were steadily improving until a tragic shooting rocketed Sanford into the national spotlight. Some of the news coverage Hollerbach feels was unfair.

HOLLERBACH: They labeled our city government, our officials, our people here as vigilantes, as being racial profilers. They said we were incompetent to run our own government. This town is, I tell you, it's the largest Mayberry you'd ever want to live in. Fifty-three thousand people who care about each other.

ALLEN: Attending some of the rallies and meetings after the shooting, Hollerbach says it made him more aware of some of the long-simmering racial tensions in Sanford, that for many years hadn't been addressed.

HOLLERBACH: Whether it's, you know, somebody saying the wrong thing at the school, or a sign that says the wrong thing on the street, and you just kind of tolerate it. And I think out town is getting back to saying, OK, we will no longer tolerate this kind of stuff.

ALLEN: Hollerbach and others in Sanford say they're determined to make their city a model in addressing a long-standing concern in the African-American community - racial profiling. This week, the day after special prosecutor Angela Corey announced she was charging George Zimmerman, she came to Sanford for a meeting with many of the city's religious leaders. They prayed together and the pastors took up plans to help the city heal. Rory Harris, the rector at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, says he and other Sanford pastors hope to come up with concrete steps to promote racial reconciliation.

RORY HARRIS: We've been broken. There's a lot of pain and suffering. We need to overcome the things that separate us, the image of profiling other people based on their appearance or their culture.

ALLEN: The pastors say one of their first actions will be to plan an interfaith memorial service for Trayvon Martin. Greg Allen, NPR News, Sanford, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.