“People talk about cha like they know all about cha. When they elevate cha, they either love it or hate it…Whether you are high or low, you gotta tip on the tight rope…you either follow or you lead, or keep blaming the machine,” sings the R&B sensation Janelle Monae in her award winning hit Tight Rope (See http://youtu.be/pwnefUaKCbc).
At 43 years of age Jeff Triplett finds himself tipping on a tight rope one year and three months after voters elevated him to Mayor of Sanford, Florida. The post is his first elective office. In fact he had never run for public office until two years ago when he threw his hat into the race and came up a winner. Little did he know the firestorm waiting down the road for this quaint little Florida town which sits on the southern shore of Lake Monroe?
Triplett grew up in the one-high school town of Nixa, Missouri. The town was named after Nicholas A. Inman, a blacksmith who owned most of the land in the area. They shorten his first name, Nicholas, to “Nix” and added his middle initial “A” to form the town’s name Nixa. Most of the residents in Nixa can trace their lineage to Mr. Inman.
As Jeff Triplett grew up the town had less than 10,000 residents. It was 97% white and had less than one percent of residents who identified themselves as African Americans. When Triplett finished college in 1992 he was looking for adventure. Prospects were not all that good in Nixa. A college buddy told him he was moving to Sanford, Florida, to seek his fortune; so Triplett packed his bag and hitched a ride across country.
His Missouri work ethic and home training served him well. A commercial banker by trade, he soon found himself being selected to serve on one volunteer board after another until business leaders suggested he run for the part time job as city mayor.
The first year in office was relatively uneventful. Then in late February 2012, George Zimmerman, a self-styled neighborhood watch captain telephoned the police department and reported he saw a suspicious individual walking inside his gated community.
The police dispatcher advised Mr. Zimmerman not to follow the person and that a patrol unit was being dispatched to his location. Mr. Zimmerman gave chase anyway, confronted the person and for reasons known only to Zimmerman, shot and killed that person.
The suspicious person was 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was armed only with a bottle of ice tea and a bag of candy.
Suddenly Jeff Triplett was tipping on Janelle Monae’s tight rope where “you gotta keep your balance or you fall into the gap.”
Trayvon Martin’s parents Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton searched until they found somebody to listen to them. That somebody was attorney Benjamin Crump, who sought assistance from the Rev. Al Sharpton. His parents were certain Trayvon Martin had not done anything that would warrant shooting him down in the street like a common criminal.
Trayvon Martin’s death opened up old racial wounds that had been simmering under the surface for decades in Sanford. The New Black Panther Party for Self Defense came to town and fanned the flames of vigilante justice.
They called a press conference in front of the Sanford Sheriff’s Department and issued a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster for the apprehension of George Zimmerman. Two days later they upped the ante and place a $12,000 bounty on Zimmerman’s head.
Not to be out done, a group of Neo-Nazis from Ohio came to Sanford vowing to protect the good white people, while denigrating George Zimmerman as a half-bred Hispanic.
Meanwhile, the community was up in arms demanding that George Zimmerman be arrested and charged for shooting Trayvon Martin.
“There was a lot of mistrust of government and the police department coming from the community,” said Mayor Triplett.
“The city manager and I would go out into the community to calm things down and by the time we would get back to the office, the police department would put out a press release that contradicted what we had just accomplished,” he said.
Sanford is 57.3 percent white and 30.5 percent African American. It has long had a less than tolerant racial history.
In 1945 when Jackie Robinson signed to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey had his minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, housed in Sanford for spring training.
Robinson and his wife were instructed not to attempt to eat or sleep in any white restaurants or hotels while in Sanford.
Fifty-six years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down on the streets of Sanford, the Montreal Royals were informed they would not be allowed to enter the field as an integrated group.
Threats were made upon the life of Jackie Robinson. So, fearing for the safety of his prize player, Branch Rickey moved Robinson and his wife out of Sanford to Daytona Beach, Fla.
Rickey then moved the Dodgers’ training facility from Sanford to Daytona Beach as well (See Arthur Ashe, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete: Baseball, 1993).
“One thing I learned from being out in the community trying to get ahead of all of the rumors is that people wanted to believe in their government.
"So one of the things we did was to hire a search committee to find an interim Police Chief who will study this situation to see where we went wrong and to develop best practices for future crises of this nature,” Triplett said.
“I learned that our initial approach to this problem exhibited a lack of passion or care for what was taking place. We sort of went about our job as a matter of course kind of thing and did not realize how passionate the people were for something to be done. As a city we have to develop more of a sense of caring for how we conduct our business.”
At the Feb. 26 rally in Fort Mellon Park for Trayvon Martin, Mayor Triplett spoke to the crowd. He told the group of nearly 100,000 that each day he wakes up and thinks about Trayvon Martin, and he can’t help but think about what if it had been one of his two boys.
When he finished his short speech the crowd booed him. Then Congresswoman Corine Brown called him back to the rostrum and told the rally that it was Mayor Triplett who had fought to release the 911 recording.
He tipped off the stage in Janelle Monae fashion, perhaps not feeling like a hero, but at least with his head held high, his dignity intact.
Triplett says that when the decision came down this week to arrest George Zimmerman he was able to breathe again. He felt comfortable on Thursday to venture out to the “Alive after Five,” events held every second Thursday of the month in downtown Sanford where he had a beer with several friends.
“There were five to six thousand people there to share in this seafood feast. It was a very diverse crowd and as diverse as the city of Sanford is. I looked out at the crowd and wondered where the television cameras to record Sanford at its finest hour were.”
As Monae says, “whether you are high or low, you gotta tip on the tight rope.”