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. bryce

    CNN has pretty much ruined this guy's chance for a fair trial. The slant of these articles is so prejudicial against this man, who is suppose to be innocent until proven guilty, that it will be hard to find an unbiased jury.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. PATRIOT

    Cold blooded murder. Death penalty. Done.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Beth

    First off – Zimmerman isn't WHITE, he's HISPANIC. Secondly, Trayvon must not have been this angel they claim he was, afterall he was visiting his father because he was suspended from school. I would love to know what he was suspended for. Was it bringing a gun to school? Fighting? Drug charges? Or something simple like skipping class? Either way, it shows his character. This should be anything BUT a racial issue. This is what the STAND YOUR GROUND law was for. Zimmerman obviously felt threatened by Martin and reacted on it. Why is the NAACP involved anyway!? As far as the race issue – the only people that refuse to let the racial profiling crap go is the blacks. I'm sorry but it's true! They all think they deserve so much more because of the slavery crap that happened YEARS ago. Were you a slave? No. Did I own you? No. Drop it! It's old. Slavery was wrong – I get it....but so was Hitler and the concentration camps. You don't see a organization rallying for the Jewish people everytime something happens do you?! No.

    Now, off the race topic – back to the FACTS. The Stand Your Ground law was made for cases like this. Zimmerman felt scared apparently – who knows. No one. No one was there except Zimmerman and Martin. One of them, unfortunately, is dead. There are 3 sides to this story. Zimmermans. Martins. And the TRUTH. No one will EVER know the truth. I don't think it's right that there is even a consideration to make Zimmerman an exception to this Stand Your Ground law just because the NAACP was able to get media attention as usual.

    MEANWHILE – anyone catch the 2 black boys burning alive the 1 white boy in Kansas?? Google it. THAT, my friends, was a pure hate crime – no matter the race involved. Let's spark the media attention on that one, shall we?!!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • kristinewt

      It is important to note the police perceived him as white (it was noted on the police report). Where did they get this information did Zimmerman give it to him or did they just look at him think..oh he's white he's cool, let's not arrest him. You mentioned 2 black boys burning a white kid in Kansas, that is truly sad. I wouldn't sit here and say that they did something to deserve it.Your assumption that he did is profiling. I'm sorry for what happened to those little white boys. What those black boys did to him was wrong. They deserve to be in jail and I'm 100% sure they have been charged and convicted. I'm happy about it. See what you don't get is no one is inflamed that a latino man killed a black boy. The public outcry for justice is because Zimmerman a 250 lb. latino man was perceived as black and got away with murder of an 140 lbs unarmed boy walking afraid for his life. Listen to the 911 calls of this teen screaming for his life.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • mytwocents

      Race has nothing to do with this I agree, but Zimmerman is still a murderer in my opinion. I won't comment on your ignorant rants about slavery, the holocaust and the child's expulsion from school. Those comments are irrelevant to this issue.

      Understand two things about this case. The kid was unarmed, and the 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle, and not to follow the teen. Zimmerman pursued and confronted an unarmed teen who was simply walking down the street minding his own business, eating candy and talking on a cell phone. If the teen were white, my opinion of Zimmerman would still be the same. He should be in jail. By the way, I'm black.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • beautiful757

      Wow beth you seem a little bothered by the fact that the race word came up. Whatever he was suspended for didnt have anything to do with him being killed because of his race. To be honest I dont believe that man life was at harm at all, he saw a black male and used him for his own target range because of the way he looked. I'm an African American mom with a son that I worry about each and everyday because he's black. I'm that mom that challenges the thought of others when it comes to how my son communicates, dresses, and interacts with others in our society. Our black men are being judged everyday on how their appearance is by other races so yes it's always going to be a racial issue. As far as the white kid that was killed by the 2 black kids I must say first that the family has my sympathy but I bet those 2 boys will be prosecuted to the fullest extent because of the race that was involved. Put the shoes on the other foot and you give a guess on what would have happened if it was 2 white kids that committed that same crime on a black kid. Just like it's always black on black crime that bothers me, it hurts me also when black boys/men die at the hands of another race for no reason and they get away with it. Whether it was an Hispanic or a White male it was just wrong and there's no right in it. If you don't know Beth, this is the White mans world baby girl, all of our Black people are just living in it and trying to survive. Just some reality check so don't get bothered by the truth!!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Matthew

    please lets not make this about race. Lets think of the child that lost his life in a ruthless act that should not have been committed was it racially motivated we will never know. The one thing that really bothers me is that a child is dead because a law that started out positive and ended negative.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • GBinSC

      You are so right.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. SafeJourney

    Where is Zimmerman and his gun now? Is he still in Florida or on his way to Mexico?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jocob

    Why does it always have to be a racist thing with black people. You dont see this with any other race except black people. Why couldnt it have bee a corrupt police thing or an incompetent police thing. You dont see the "crutch" racist card played by any other race when things like this happen.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • monica

      You've got it backwards Jocob. It's not always about race to Black people. It's always about OUR blackness to other races, particularly white. Many do not see a person when they see an african american they see a BLACK person with all the stereotypes they THINK black means. They see someone DIFFERENT and proceed to treat them differently in many cases, not always bad but different. Black people are just REACTING to and Commenting on this real phenomenon. Black people would LOVE to stop talking about race, all we need is for some others to stop seeing RACE first, person second. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. malcolm

    jjane velez mitchell need to check herself, flipping burgers or selling drugs...is that what you really think Miss Jane...?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Allen Wicks

    Other than police racial bias, how could the local police see this as "stand your ground" defense when the murderer was in a vehicle and had every opportunity to leave?

    The problem here is not guns, nor the "stand your ground" defense. It is the willingness of authority (and possibly the local community) to accept an armed attack against an unarmed teenager. Imagine if Martin was also armed, and stood his ground and killed Zimmerman. The local police would immediately have arrested Martin, no bail.

    This may initially have been just a murderous Zimmerman out to get anyone who did not fit his psycho profile; likely racial but possibly just Zimmerman hates everyone. However the law enforcement response was clearly racially biased (Welcome to America).

    March 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • bill

      Absolutely.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. NOBO

    I don't see an issue here.... the guy is hispanic.... and it wouldn't matter if he were white anyway, BUT this guy had no right to approach the kid and start something.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • eugene

      black and hispanic tension is huge. in LA there are hate crimes against blacks all the times in mexican neighborhoods... get another view of the world you live in, not just your city and street.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jeremy Roman

    "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."

    What kind of police officer takes the word of a killer without even investigating the incident first? Okay, sure, they couldn't *arrest* Zimmerman at the time, but they could have done a million other things to verify what they had been told, including testing Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol, confiscating the gun as evidence, checking 911 tapes, taking witness statements (as opposed to leading witnesses), etc. They did none of this because of shoddy police work, and they should be run out of town for their incompetence.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lynn

      Totally agree!!! What happened to "Investigations" When are police departments going to learn from all the past mistakes and do what there job is, to "Protect & Serve" I am disgusted with that whole police department for failing Trayvon.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. SafeJourney

    CNN just had their audio expert clean up the 911 tape with the racial slur. You can Clearly hear what Zimmerman said

    March 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. bill

    Let's pretend this isn't racial, although I believe it is, even if Trayvon was white, Zimmerman had NO right to pursue him. 911 told him NOT to. He did so anyway. This is not a situation which falls under stand your ground law – Zimmerman went after Trayvon – this is an undisputed fact.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Fred

    Zimmerman is not a police man and can't make arrest and should be trown in jail, but on thing that no kid should do is walk around wearing a hoodie unless it's winter and or freezing out. Every time I see a white, black, mexican, or any male walking or driving around in a hoodie I think CRIMINAL. The only people who would disagree is a crimina, gang member, or drug addict.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • mel

      it was training. Does that justify wearing a hood over your head to you?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • mel

      it was raining. Does that justify wearing a hood over your head to you?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Neil Crabtree

      Fred, your comment is ridiculous! I am not a criminal, gang member or use drugs or even drink alcohol, but I own and wear hoodies on a regular basis. Oh and how about Bill Belichick (the New England Patriots head coach) he wears them seemingly every day. Do you think he's a criminal? Stop trying to justify vigilantism. Zimmerman incredibly overreacted and in any other state would be in jail facing at minimum charges for manslaughter.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • graphicsgirl777

      This is possibly the dumbest comment I have ever read. Hoodie = criminal? Are you mixing medications again?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Neil Crabtree

    So effectively, under Florida's law if you want to kill someone all you have to do is take them to a place in Florida where there are no witnesses, shoot them and then claim they were attacking you. Since age difference, body size difference, and reasonable proportional response in any such purported attach apparently have no impact on the determination of whether someone is protecting themselves or committing murder, it seems like Florida has simply made murder legal. Hope all you Floridian's feel safer.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Name*karen edgers

    I think that something should. Be done. Because if it had been the other way around they would have tried to get the death penalty it is so sad that it is like this my feelings are there needs to be something done with. Zimmerman not later but now. God be with Trayvon's family.family's.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
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