March 22nd, 2012
12:55 PM ET

Trayvon Martin case sparks dialogue on racial inequality, meaning of justice

Nearly one month ago, few people knew the name Trayvon Martin.

The teen, who was walking to the house of his father's fiancée in Sanford, Florida, with a drink and Skittles in hand, was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who had called police to report suspicious activity. If you had looked on February 26, it would have been hard to find much discussion or major national coverage about the shooting.

On its face, that day, it was simple: Zimmerman told police that Martin, who was unarmed, attacked him, so he shot Martin in self-defense, which can be a protected activity under Florida law.

But now, this case, at least in terms of the conversations swirling around it, is anything but simple. And Trayvon Martin's name has now become part of the vocabulary of a debate on attitudes about race.

What began as a local shooting has turned into a global story that you couldn't miss, even if you tried. It is a story that has sparked outrage, cries of racism, accusations of vigilantism and questions about gun laws and whether police properly investigated the case. It has in many ways turned into a full-scale moment of reflection for Americans, of all races, as to whether we as a nation have moved forward in our quest for equality among races.

A petition on Change.org calling for Zimmerman's arrest, now handled by Martin's parents, shows how ingrained the topic is in the cultural zeitgeist. Early Thursday, the petition had reached 1 million signatures, with them coming in at a pace of 1,000 signatures a minute, according to Noland Chambliss, communications director for Change.org.  Chambliss said the petition at times has been getting 50,000 signatures an hour.

It is one of the more dominant conversations on news and social media sites, becoming a sort of rallying cry from those who feel an injustice has occurred. Those who feel that Zimmerman took Florida's "stand your ground" protection too far, or used it as an excuse to gun down a black teen because he was wearing a hoodie, took to the streets around the country to make their voices heard.  Demonstrators crowded New York's Union Square on Wednesday night, in a "Million Hoodie March" attended by Martin's parents.

The demands for justice grew largely because of a massive social media campaign with the help of major African-American celebrities trying to bring attention to the case, leading to Martin's name trending worldwide. But it's gone beyond just being a word or topic being typed out in a tweet or a post.

Most of the outrage comes from the idea that some people believe Zimmerman specifically targeted Martin because of his race, a claim that Zimmerman's father denies. Questions have swirled about whether Zimmerman used a racial epithet during his call to police about Martin. A top CNN audio engineer enhanced the sound of the 911 call, and several members of CNN's editorial staff repeatedly reviewed the tape but could reach no consensus on whether Zimmerman used a racial slur.

Many of those outraged with the case believe that Zimmerman had no reason to gun down a teenager who had no weapon. But the truth is we don't know exactly what happened between the moment Zimmerman called police to report his concern and the moment that cops showed up and found the black teen dead in the grass.

And perhaps it is all of those unknowns that have stoked the flames of outrage. It may be those unknowns that have sparked so many questions, and the inherent need to know exactly why this happened. Those concerns have led us to dissect the lives of Martin and Zimmerman to try and understand what may have happened that fateful night. Those questions have led some to criticize Florida's gun law and question whether it allows killers to go free.

And the situation has also forced parents of  black children to think about how they should discuss the story with their kids. What rhetoric do they use? How do they explain what they feel is happening?

CNN's Christy Oglesby wrote that her 12-year-old son knows he could have been Trayvon.

"It’s tough finding the balance between encouraging a black boy to storm the world with confidence and at the same time to fear for his life. But that’s what I must do," she wrote. "I know that at this very moment some have just sucked their teeth in disgusted disbelief and decided that I’m exaggerating. I wish that I was. I’m not. If I were, Trayvon would be alive."

That's a sentiment that author Touré wrote about for Time.com, too. In his piece called "How to talk to young black boys about Trayvon Martin," he offers eight talking points on what he calls the "potentially fatal condition of being Black."

"It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry but that’s the truth. Blackmaleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could possibly save your life," he wrote. "There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It’s possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being Black could turn an ordinary situation into a life or death moment even if you’re doing nothing wrong."

It has also forced a national dialogue on whether police handled the case properly, in general, or whether there were any racial biases in how the case was handled.

Pressure continues to grow on legislators to re-examine the "stand your ground" law, as well as on those charged with investigating the case. After a no-confidence vote and demands for his resignation, pressure mounted Thursday on the Sanford police chief. Sanford city commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday night in favor of a nonbinding measure of no confidence against Police Chief Bill Lee.Some of the people supporting Martin's family have also made it clear they want the chief fired, tweeting out his photo and phone number and encouraging people to flood his office with phone calls.

But police did try to give insight into how and why they handled the incident the way they did in a letter from the city manager posted online. In it, they explain, exactly how the "stand your ground" law works and how, according to Zimmerman's description of what happened that night, they could not refute that Zimmerman was protected by the law.

Thursday afternoon Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee announced Thursday he is stepping down "temporarily" as head of the department.

"I am aware that my role as a leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation," he told reporters. "It is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process. Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily remove myself from the position."

He added, "I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks."

A Seminole County grand jury will convene April 10 on the matter, according to State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, and the U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into the case.

It appears that a growing movement of people across the country will continue to rally behind Martin's parents as they urge an arrest in the case.  Another rally is planned Thursday night at a Sanford church.

Before the grand jury makes a decision on whether to hand down indictments in the case, it is likely that more voices will fight to be heard and added to this ongoing and heated debate.

soundoff (1,305 Responses)
  1. sigmond

    Jewish Hispanic man. His father is Jewish. Jewish Lawyer and former Magistrate Judge while living in Virginia. And believe it that that portion of George Zimmerman's lineage will be used to the fullest, just not spoken about publicly. He will continuously be portrayed as Hispanic to avoid shame and disgrace to be placed on the Jewish community for a racially motivated Hate Crime. Because as long as Mr.Zimmerman is a PERPETRATOR of a Hate Crime his Jewish lineage will not be openly discussed. If Mr. ZImmerman were a VICTIM of a Hate Crime (like in France recently) his Jewish heritage would be plastered on every headline in the world. Why is this important? Because of the cultural/political connections his father has in the Legal System.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. RIP2HIM

    Heres my issue. The fact that ppl live in a bubble and feel that racial profile does not exist. I personally feel the police tried to cover this up from the beginning with issuing a drug test on a deceased teen before contacting his parents so that if drugs played a role that would be the story behind his death and why Zimmerman confronted him. This case is crazy. I studied law and i smell civil suits.

    March 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. justthinking

    I have read and listened to all aspects of the Martin/Zimmerman case. I find it very unsettling that this country can only see black and white in this. And how everythibg is brought back to the poor black. Believe it or not, there are areas in every city and every state where a white person dares not go. He will be profiled by the blacks as looking for trouble or trying to invade thyeir TURF. Have we forgotten the riots of the 60's and 70's. Why can't people just be people. I remember having to be afraid to go to the shower in Vietnam because of the black uprising. I remember the soldier killed for sitting in the wrong seat in the Mess Hall.
    I think that people need to stop looking for racial motivation and find out really what happened then figure out why it happened. All I see coming from these protest and marches is the political and money gains for those highly motivated persons who keep crying racial profiling. They are the ones with a racial problem

    April 2, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  4. justthinking

    justthinking

    I have read and listened to all aspects of the Martin/Zimmerman case. I find it very unsettling that this country can only see black and white in this. And how everythibg is brought back to the poor black. Believe it or not, there are areas in every city and every state where a white person dares not go. He will be profiled by the blacks as looking for trouble or trying to invade thyeir TURF. Have we forgotten the riots of the 60's and 70's. Why can't people just be people. I remember having to be afraid to go to the shower in Vietnam because of the black uprising. I remember the soldier killed for sitting in the wrong seat in the Mess Hall.
    I think that people need to stop looking for racial motivation and find out really what happened then figure out why it happened. All I see coming from these protest and marches is the political and money gains for those highly motivated persons who keep crying racial profiling. They are the ones with a racial problem

    April 2, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. TheDantheman

    They keep talking about Zimmerman making a "racial slur" what do they believe is being said? It makes you wonder what kind of mind would interpret a racial slur from this gibberish? I hear no intelligible words much less a racial slur.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  6. TheDantheman

    It is irresponsible for the CNN reporter to incite racial discord and that's exactly what they are doing.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  7. Peter D

    Why on earth that a guy like George Zimmerman who has a mug shot in 2005 at the Orange County Jail in Florida can own a gun and carry it around in a so called neighborhood watch???

    April 12, 2012 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  8. America has it wrong

    Look up Murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom and let me know where the media, Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and everyone else protesting at. Media bias, I say so just to flare up anger and stories. Or where are they on the 6 year old girl killed by rival gang members in Chicago.

    April 19, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  9. Sinathx Witoskya

    Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

    July 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. wut

    Translation: please help me write this paper due on Friday. Thanks.

    April 25, 2013 at 2:27 am | Report abuse |
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