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. Bob1

    Here we go again folks, the never ending saga of the black community slogan "racial inequality & justice" continues with flying colors, it's the gift that doesn't stop giving from politicians to minorities, oh and don't they LOVE IT.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      I agree Bob. I feel very prejudiced against by the minorities. We are automatically called racist by the very people that are them selves prejudiced towards whites.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • leslieiee

      @Bob. Yeah. Apparently enough to die for it.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. alex_santarelli

    The man shot and killed an unarmed child who was walking home in the rain at night. this man followed him. he killed this child. people called in hearing him SCREAMING for help. the parents were searching for their son for 3 DAYS. the cops no one tried to find the parents of this boy. he had his phone on him. was talking to his girlfriend 1 minute before he was shot dead. why didn't they contact anyone. ASK YOUR SELVES

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Faxon

    Perhaps black "youth" should not dress like hoodlums. When I see a black kid dressed in baggy pants down below his groin, black hoodies, and Nike shoes, I cross the street expecting the obvious: They are hoodlums.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • WLM

      Faxxon You are an idiot, dressing in a hoodie on a rainy day only makes sense. It was raining, This child was protecting himself from getting wet. People wearing hoodies and/or nike shoes, are black, white, hispanic.. what does that have to do with anything?????? This man shot a child holding candy. He had no right. This child wasnt even causing problems, being loud, or acting out... Its sickening!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • leslieiee

      @Faxon: I agree with Joe. Stop making things up.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dale

      By that logic, is every white male wearing khakis and a polo shirt a golfer?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex_santarelli

      how do you know he was wearing baggy pants? yes he was wearing hoodies many people under the age of 40 wear hoddies. nothing wrong with it and it is not hoodlum dress. he was a kid

      March 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Essie

      @Faxon....well, tell the "white" kids to stop cramping our style! Because y'all really don't have a style, so you steal everybody else's! Then call it "hoodlum dressing!" ...NO BUDDY, IT'S A STYLE!!! Ask Justin Bieber & the rest of the little white boys who "copy" our style!!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jose

    Florida never fails to amaze me when it comes to its blatant disregard for civil rights, as well as its abuse and gross incompetence when it comes to law enforcement.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. PoDunk

    Now the police chief is "temporarily" stepping aside. Talk about bailing ship. We'll put him right next to the cruise ship captain. ;)

    March 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jim

    I feel racially typecast because I am white. Not all whites are prejudice as well as not all blacks or Hispanics or Asians are not prejudiced towards whites. I see this movement saying that there is much racial prejudice among whites but I believe that there is much racial prejudice towards whites by other minorities as well. When will white people get their own needs met by not being typecast as racially prejudice. The wheel turns both ways!.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kiki

      The word "Latino" is often used as a synonym for "Hispanic". The definitions of both terms are non-race specific, and include people who consider themselves to be of distinct races (Black, White, Amerindian, Asian, and mixed groups).there is a common misconception in the US that Hispanic/Latino is a race. Many Hispanics are white.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • leslieiee

      @Joe: You can already walk down the street carrying Skittles and not get shot.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • leslieiee

      Sorry, That was supposed to be "@Jim."

      March 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex_santarelli

      I don't believe all whites are prejudice I don't. but its clear that something foul was in the air those 3 days. the day he was killed and the 3 days it took for the parents to find him. the police did not even look for his family. they had his phone. why did the Hispanic Zimmerman think he did not belong there.. why? and does he make it a habit of following every person who walks at night in the neighborhood? or just blacks

      March 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JOSE0311USMC

    BLACKS GOT TO GET A JOB AND STOP BREAKING IN PEOPLE HOMES....IF IT WASN'T FOR THE 4 BLACKS WHO BROKE IN THOSE 4 HOMES ?? THAT SHOOTING PROBABLY WOULDN'T IT HAPPENED......A BLACK KID IN A BLACK HOODIE WALKING IN A WHITE NEIGHBORHOOD AFTER 4 BLACKS BROKE IN 4 HOMES 4 WEEKS PRIOR..I'M SURE ZIMMERMAN AFTER HE SAW THAT KID , HE SAID WHAT IS HE DOING HERE ..I WOULD OF SAID THE SAME THING...SO HE WENT OVER TO THE KID TO ASK HIM WHAT HE WAS DOING...

    March 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Stop making things up. Nobody broke into this guys home, especially not this kid.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Trice

    Trayvon got what he deserved? Really? Wow... Would you feel that way if it were your son, brother, cousin, friend or loved one? Of course not! I feel so sorry for you. You're on your way to hell first class!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. UNDERtheDOG

    CMON NOW! Similar or equal force should be a must. If i raise my fist to you.. like i was threatening to punch you, would it be ok to kill me with a bazooka? of course not. so how did this younger boy threaten a man who was already carrying a gun? ITS ALL BS. He was patroling his neighborhood with a loaded gun looking for confrontation. Then he killed a unarmed boy.,

    March 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anna

      I agree. People, let's not overlook things here. Zimmerman is trying to defend himself under the "stand your ground" law which allows people to own a gun for self-defense. Like many people are saying on here, does that give me reason to shoot someone just because they looked at me weird? Not at all. Bogus laws like these are what causes these horrible tragedies. Aside from Zimmerman shooting him because of his race (which is a whole other story) this would never be a problem if the laws in Florida were different! Why in the world must some random person carry a gun (who's clearly not even capable of it) to protect the neighborhood? How does someone become in charge of this? Are there background checks involved? Licensing? This bs "stand your ground" law is the sole reason why this happened and Florida needs to improve their laws. My philosophy is, if no one owned a gun, we really wouldn't have these problems. "Stand your ground" is a defense clearly used to get away with murder.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim Crow

      Actually, he was paid to patrol a gated community. So its not quite what you are saying... please read the entire story before you babble.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. matt

    1. You can't change the laws after someone did something to make it a crime and prosecute the person. Use you brains for once and stop being mindless drones. Granting the government permission to change laws and prosecute based on new laws for things is a dangerous proposition and is not well thought out.

    2. Enough with the race aspect. He was bi-racial growing up in a bi-racial home. Furthermore, millions of whites are speaking up for the kid. Tens of thousands of crimes happen on a daily basis and many of them are committed against a different race. There are bad people in every race.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • ScottyB

      Only whites are bad, just ask the blacks.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wade The Blade

      Amen Matt. I am always amazed at how people without any knowlege, or facts......can make snap decisions and be so sure of themselves. Thank goodness our justice system doesnt operate that way. Due Process!!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mslman

    Where are the stories about the 150 or so other juveniles that have been murdered since Trayvon's death?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tim In Bama

    Whatever it takes to keep the thugs off the streets!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. alex_santarelli

    if trevon were white. many people in the USA first words would be. was Zimmerman even legal. the police would have arrested him. and he would not still be in possession of his gun right now, even if later released.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • icon0clast

      If he was white no one would have cared and the world would have kept moving. Its a shame this happened but really, the only reason people care is because of the color of his skin.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sondra

    What I would like to see is the law the same for everyone no matter your color. If it was reversed, Trayvon would have been arrested. He was an A, B student. Never in trouble but Zimmerman has a record but got the benefit of his skin so his word was golden instead of a collection of evidence and checking the scene to see if what he said matched with the 911 calls from ppl that lived in the neighborhood and the ones made by Zimmerman. Zimmerman stalked Trayvon when the 911 operator told him to stand down cause the police were on the way. Be logical and think about that. If that was your son or daughter getting that treatment would you want them to be treated that way? Same treatment for everyone under the law. No special treatment for anyone.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim Crow

      If a black man killed a white boy, it would never be called a race crime.. for whatever illogical reason. The bottom line is this.. its not a race crime...its a crime... but who committed it is still in question.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jason

    Whatever you wanna say about race or what happened no one commenting here knows for sure. The REAL cause of this is that too many people have guns and it doesn't make anyone safer. It's not guns that kill people or people who kill people, it's people with guns that kill people. Whatever people's justifications are for gun ownership, if you allow people, no matter their training or background, to carry weapons capable of instantly taking a life at great distance innocent people, some of them children, are going to die. This guy is not going to be prosecuted because of an NRA backed law, just like the black guy who killed the white father in front of his daughter wasn't.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      You may want to leave you and your families defense inside your home to someone else, but I doubt you would have that point of view if you walked in on someone raping your wife or holding your kids at gunpoint. I sure as heck demand that my elected government allow me to protect myself with lethal force. So, go ahead little lemming and let yourself or your family be killed by an armed intruder, just try begging and whimpering. I'll go down fighting. Gun control laws don't prevent criminals from getting guns, only law abiding citizens.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
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