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. Bob

    How silly am I, I always thought that suspects were tried by those with law degrees, NOT journalism degrees and GED's.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kiki

    Why cant people understand the difference between Nationalty, ethnicity and race? 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

    March 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jay

    How many of you here commenting know the actual facts? Are you going off of what CNN(a liberal slanted news outlet) is reporting? If you responded to the scene, then please, we want your opinion. If not, then we need to stop letting loud obnoxious people take control of a story, twist the facts, then make it a national event. Most of the "hoodies" marching are only marching out of anger, not factually proven events.
    I know everyone was waiting for me to tie hitler in so here it goes....

    Hitler yelled, blamed other people for their own problems, and brainwashed the youth and bourgeois of that time. He didn't present facts, only very strong opinions which people took as facts.
    Thats what is happening today whithin the black community. The rest of you are just following like lemmings.

    This isn't a race issue, and this is not a racial comment. Lets all stop following the loud mouthed fool on the podium and really learn the facts.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark99er

      If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, then guess what it's a duck and a racist duck to boot!!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ghandi

    I am sure the parents of these wish they still had their children alive. Where are the protests against this animal? ........... Teenager 'gunned down two lost British tourists in Florida for not handing over cash' after they stumbled drunk into crime-ridden neighborhood

    ...... http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2118785/Teenager-gunned-British-tourists-Florida-handing-cash.html

    March 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Raymond

    KIKI is the only person who has any common sense. America, with all its universities, still is very iliterate.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ukonne.

    If he's Hispanic,is that a lifeline to gun down a fellow human.i give nothing to what one were...am quite sure that Simmerman or whoever he is aint psycho,so why shooting after he has made the 911 call?this is utterly rubbish.i demand some good explainations.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. girlygirl45

    I have a son Trayvon's age. So this really angers me. This guy seems like a nut job. Even if he got into an argument with him , he was unarmed. He had no reason to shoot him. Just macho bull crap from a nut job with a gun that should not own one. It seems as if he was on the prowl for trouble that did not exist, and hopefully he will go to jail for his violent actions.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. enkephalin07

    If you're concerned about your children, regardless of your race the law provides for them to pack heat and gun down anyone who looks at them funny. The NRA would've wanted it that way.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. My 2 cents

    A very sad situation. Mr. Zimmerman, who appears to be Hispanic and not white, had very obvious racial overtones in his phone conversation with the police (and a very direct one that was hard to hear, but when taken in context, it's understood). Not only was he motivated by race, but he openly admitted to following Trayvon, and did so even after he was told not to. Mr. Zimmerman was the armed pursuant that created the entire confrontation, and if that goes unpunished, then justice has not been served.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Connie

    What does it matter what color of the skin Zimmerman is.. What if Zimmerman was a black man in the same scenario, what then? I mean this is distracting from the real and only issue here, a human being who happened to be unarmed, and seventeen is dead. Pray for his family, and tell others not to fuel this into a riot. If Zimmerman did wrong, it will be found out, it's not for you, or me or the mob to determine this.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John Garrison

    First of all, the fact that Zimmerman didn't stay in his car points to the fact he was an idiot and brought this on himself. Second, my condolences to Trayvon's family, I know how devastated I would feel if it was my son.

    But I have to ask, where were all you folks during the O.J. Simpson trial and how much sympathy did you feel for Nicole's parents? Please don't insult my intelligence and claim O.J. was innocent or that the race card wasn't played.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • DBrennan

      OJ...? Really?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • N. B

      You are correct.. my opinion is that OJ was GUILTY.. maybe not of the actual crime, but he had a part in it.. (this coming from an African American Female here!). But in that case.. it wasnt race.. it was money that set him free!! Cause we can go back to the Rodney king incident if you will!!! But thats neither here nor there.. what matters here is that a young man was unjustly categorized, stereotyped to be a danger, when in reality, the real danger was the man with the gun!! I do agree that race did play a part, but the bigger story is this stupid law that allowed this person to be still walking free.. You cant pursue anyone and chase them down, and expect them NOT to fight back. and then you cant claim self defense in this matter!!

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

      I like your style.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • DamuDame

      Well actually if the police had done a GOOD job in processing the evidence and the case as a whole they would have seen that his son was actually the most probable suspect. They didnt...and so they arrested and prosecuted an innocent man who was rightly released. Sorry...

      March 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jay

    If we really want to talk about a true racist killing, lets talk about the arab that killed the jews in france. THATS a hate crime.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. n22s

    As his mother said, this is not a black or white thing. It is about what's right. If it were true that 100 white kids' lives were lost to an injustice to every 1 black kid's life would that somehow make the loss of that one black child mean less? Of course not. The child and his family deserve justice regardless of anyone's background. You know why people of both colors immediately go to race on these boards? Because it is cheap, easy, meaningless and unreal to the posters. You're a racist! You're too sensitive! Well I have news for you of both colors. Neither of you have a heart! Sad to say that many of you of both colors ONLY care because he was black. I have news for you, children of both colors are lost or hurt to stupidity EVERY day, Do you think the parents of children lost to the hands of people of the same color are saying to themselves; "I'm sorry Jimmy was murdered but at least a (insert color here) didn't kill him"? Children destroyed or hurt deserve justice. End of story.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lila

    The part of the story that angers so many, aside from Zimmerman's actions, is the behavior from the police department. They just accepted Zimmerman's account and didn't even investigate it. "Oh well, he said it was self defense, that's good enough for them!"

    March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. English101

    OK, I would like to clear somthing up.....there is no such thing as reverse raceism. Raceism is being prejudice against a particular racial group or ethnicity when you belong to another racial group or ethnicity, reverse raceism would entail being prejudice against your own racial group or ethnicity. The term is thrown around all the time and no one has ever adressed that it makes no etymological sense. Its an incorrect term. Im just saying.

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

      For someone with the name English101, your English is terrible. They call it reverse racism when it's someone being racism towards a white person because only white people are racist apparently. You want to tell the world how other "slang" words are incorrect. You better start now, you have a lot to cover.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
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