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In the Eye of a Firestorm

By DAN BARRY, SERGE F. KOVALESKI, CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and LIZETTE ALVAREZ

Trayvon Martin’s body was found in this part of the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Fla., where his father’s girlfriend lives.

SANFORD, Fla. — Once again, a river of protest raged through Sanford this weekend to demand justice in the name of an unarmed black teenager shot dead. It gathered strength in front of the historic Crooms Academy, the first high school for black students in Seminole County, surged through the streets, and formed a flood of grief and outrage just outside the Sanford Police Department.

Once again, thousands chanted the name of Trayvon Martin, 17, the youth killed with one bullet while returning to a home in a gated community where he was a guest. Once again, they cried for the arrest of George Zimmerman, 28, the neighborhood watch coordinator who has claimed self-defense under a Florida law with the assertive name of Stand Your Ground.

With five weeks’ passage, the fateful encounter between a black youth who wanted to go to college and a Hispanic man who wanted to be a judge has polarized the nation.

And, now this modest central Florida community finds its name being mentioned with Selma and Birmingham on a civil rights list held sacred in black American culture, while across the country, the parsing of the case has become cacophonic and political, punctuated by pleas for tolerance, words of hatred, and spins from the left and right.

The racial divide that once partly defined Sanford, with U.S. 17-92 serving as the inviolable line separating black and white, has faded over the decades, leaving a casually integrated downtown. Yet the sense remains among residents of both races that the police department has not come as far as the city as a whole.

Velma Williams, its sole black city commissioner, calls Sanford “a small, friendly, good city.” But she said that a string of unsolved cases had raised questions over whether the police had a “cavalier attitude” whenever “a black male is murdered.” Nonsense, countered its acting police chief, Darren Scott, who is also black. “Everyone here in the city gets fair and equal treatment.”

That assertion of justice for all — in Sanford and throughout the United States — has been challenged, though, by a progression of events that began so innocently, so ordinarily: A teenage boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt leaves a 7-Eleven’s neon brightness with his purchase of some candy and an iced tea, and heads back into the wet Sunday evening of Feb. 26, back to a residential complex with a forbidding gate and a comforting name.

Trayvon Martin was more than welcome there; he was expected.

With his hood up as the rain came down, Trayvon made his way to one gated community among many, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. Past a dozen storefronts, four of them vacant. Past signs and billboards shouting “Now Leasing!” and “Rent Specials!” His was a tour of a post-bust stretch of Sanford.

For more than two years now, Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, a truck driver from Miami, had been dating Brandy Green, a juvenile detention officer in Orlando. She lived at the Retreat with her 14-year-old son, Chad, and it was not uncommon for the Martins to drive up from Miami for overnight visits.

Over six feet tall and lanky, Trayvon was interested in girls, computer games, sports and the beat of the rap and hip-hop emanating from the ear buds of his smartphone. Sleeping in Miami Dolphins bedsheets, he was all teenage boy, and more.

He called himself “Slimm” on Twitter, and used a handle, @no_limit_nigga, that echoed a song by the rappers Kane & Abel. On Facebook, he expressed interest in everything from airplanes to “South Park,” from Bob Marley to LeBron James. On MySpace, he posted snapshots of his young life: admiring an airplane; fishing with his father; displaying a cake decorated with the words “Happy Birthday Tray.”

Easygoing, with a default mood set at “chillin’,” as one schoolmate, Suzannah Charles, put it. The kind of kid who made tiny cakes in an Easy-Bake Oven with his 7-year-old cousin; who spoon-fed a close uncle, Ronald Fulton, who is quadriplegic, when his nurse was unavailable; who was an integral part of a close-knit family — raised properly, family members say, by Mr. Martin and his ex-wife, Sybrina Fulton, who works for Miami-Dade County’s housing agency.

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