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 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  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, 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)

    So what's the lesson for blacks who live in Florida and in other southern states where there is s stand your ground law? Go out and get a permit for a gun to protect and defend your self and you family. Perhaps if all black people in America start arming themselves, these kinds of crimes would be deterred. And it seems like the only kinds of people who like carrying guns are coward white people because they're afraid of black people, even black kids. And yes, I call this guy white because he is white and not Hispanic. It is clearly evident that it was his coward white side and not his Hispanic side that influenced his actions so don't try to say he's Hispanic. Real Hispanics don't discriminate against blacks or any other race and commits race crimes. Hispanics are not like that at all.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • JimmyB18

      Did you know 1 in 8 black males are incarcerated? Food for thought.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Love Everyone

      Your post is hypocritical. You say, "Hispanics don't discriminate against... any other race", yet you also say, "His coward white side". Sounds like discrimination to me.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHAT?

      Are you crazy? I am a latina and i know plenty of racists latinos. Racism is everyone and affects everyone.....

      March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taxpayer Joe

      This whole circus is trite. Black people kill innocent black people everyday. Now someone of a different race ALLEGEDLY kills a black kid and the media is up in arms over it and the typical black mouthpieces are spouting their inflammatory rhetoric once again. Gimme a break.

      I've been robbed at gunpoint before. You'll never guess the race of the perp.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. USA


    March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. I'm just saying

    In reference to the pic being when he was 12,...I have a 17 year old nephew and I have tons of pics of him in his younger years, but as he began to mature, he would always shy away from pictures or not smile in them. Young men getting into their teens are less likley to take photographs becuase their in the cool phase of their lives...

    March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. StrengthinNUMBERS

    Only in America could such an event as this ignite such hatred. Black people need to control their behavior. Psyholigists around the world know these people to have the shortest fuzes of any race of people and become agitated at things that should not rile them up. This is why they are regardest as the stupidest race on the planet!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • 1984

      you are a idiot. to think things like that.. Color has nothing to do with stupidity.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. USA


    March 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. NorCalMojo

    Once there was a shepherd boy named Al Sharpton who was watching his flock and wondered what would happen if he cried racism. He shouted it at the top of his lungs and the villagers came running.....

    March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. yneemee

    Why doesn't CNN run photos showing Zimmerman as a boy scout or dressed up for Halloween or his prom like they only show Trayvon dresed for a football game or as a baby or – why does CNN and others want to flame racial animus BEFORE the facts are in – why oh why ?

    How about telling us the time of day when this occurred and other FACTS rather than throwing out that a "racial slur" may have been used. Why is OK to use the N word in a song or movie and not on the street – isn't free speech, free speech everwhere – why oh why ?

    And why doesn't CNN and otherrs devote near as much attention to the murder of whites, blacks, hispanics, asians and gays at the hands of blacks as they do when it is at the hands of whites – why oh why ?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Liv

      Because if it were a black man he would be in jail and given a trial for what he did. What he looks like now as opposed to a few years ago has NOTHING to do with the fact that he was pursued and killed. Zimmerman was told to stay where he was not get out of your car an pursue an unarmed child and kill him. He could look like the incredible hulk at 17 WHY does that matter?

      March 23, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. tv

    Do you want the media and uninformed to be the law enforcement?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • crazyvermont

      I believe the shooter should be held to justice but I'm getting tired of all the racial overtones. Heard the mother on TV thois morning saying a white man just can't shoot her boy. Lady....this was a Hispanic and who knows maybe part of a gang that targeted blacks,

      March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. demo Joseph

    I heard the words used and I know what he said. The authors of this bill should be the ones who died.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. armand

    "misplaced hate makes disgrace to races" 2pac..

    March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    Zimmerman's head is so frigging big, he could have knocked out the kid with his head alone if he wanted to. The SOB looks like one of those Florida aligators or perhaps a crocodile! What a gorilla!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. USA


    March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Canopy

      Theres been a war on "race" since ancient times. There's actually a historical reason why blacks are continually persucuted. Has to do with the origins of man. History is a powerful thing...unfortunately most of the history thats provided in books is completely inaccurate on purpose.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      Now you know how us white folks have felt for a looonnggg time.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joker


      March 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JODIE

    this should be a wakeup call to all thugs, criminals no matter what color. Unfortunately, blacks index higher in that category than any other race so wake up African Americans! Time to STOP acting like anyone owes you ANYTHING and act like civilized humans!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • rtbrno65

      It sounds like you're saying that we need to start shooting unarmed blacks as a means of intimidating the African-American community, which you appear to be characterizing as being a bunch of criminals. I hope that's not what you're saying.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liv

      Because walking down the street with a bag of skittles and a soda is very uncivilied... barbaric even!!

      March 23, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. crump

    If race could be subtracted from this incident you would still end up with someone who was killed and the killer walks away. Is that fair?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Canopy

      Its not about whats fair...its about keeping people on the lower reigns of consciousness and development. By focusing on superficial traits and portraying it as something thats relevant we're in effect kept from progressing as a civilization.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Larry in AZ

    The legal system in this country is very much working correctly at this point. Regardless of the opinion of the public ( lynch mob), there are specific reasons that the man was not arrested. Since the initial investigation, it does sound like more evidence has come forward (recorded phone conversation), and that evidence may or may not be legal. For example, how was the conversation recorded?

    With all of that said, I am very sad that this boy was killed and I personally think that Zimmerman did the wrong thing. However, NONE OF US were there and this is precisely why our legal process exists.

    Finally, I want to let the family know that I am personally very sorry for their terrible loss. I can't and don't want to imagine what it must be like to be them right now. Hopefully, when justice is served, they can find some solace in that.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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