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. Sondra

    2012 and still having the same issues. Learn from the past or be doomed repeating it. We, as a nation, are better than this. Why can't we learn to be better than this- be it inequality in the work place, racism, discrimination against women, seniors,gays, etc? Man in the mirror by Michael Jackson is a song I listen to daily cause I want to be a better person. Shouldn't we all want that? Man up! Woman up! Stand up for Justice! Justice for all. We all know right from wrong. This is wrong. Zimmerman should have let the police do their job by checking out the kid and they would have found he was on his way home with a bag of skittles for his little brother and going to watch the basketball game and everyone would have been safe.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. whta

    This had NOTHING to do with race. If that kid had been white he would have been shot too.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Servant55

    Check this out:

    The law before us now is a ticket to disastrous outcomes from person to person encounters. The reverse issue has come up before between a man named Dooley at home on his property across from a park and a father out with his daughter on park property, David James. Dooley is chastising another kid for using his skateboard on a basketball court. James being there on the same park property with his daughter indicates there is no noted prohibition to a skateboard on a court. Dooley leaves his property knowing he has gun and goes over to the park; James has his daughter there and the other kid apparently with no one; appears to feel obligated as an adult to deal with another adult on behalf of the kids. Dooley [black] brandishes his gun and James [white] reacts, [I truly believe James is thinking like a father and protector], gets into a physical contact and is shot dead in front of his daughter. Dooley claims self-defense. Dooley to me is the aggressor as he did not have to leave his property and could have called police if he truly took issue with the use of the park [no doubt he would have been told each person has equal rights to use the park and there is no issue to be investigated]; but again, possession of a gun makes one braver than normal. Dooley is on trial and he should be.
    For the Zimmerman and Martin encounter, an investigation should have begun the night of the incident while data and all evidence is fresh and uncontaminated as is possible. It would have been the just thing to do.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Ukonne.

    I just cant write any more word here...its clear that we got people here who finds it extremely difficult to understand what it mean when you have your killed without a convincing report.how would you react?

    March 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Paul Erinle

    Where is humanity in man, that turns his back to Divine Spirit. Is human race at the crossroad of self and spiritual destruction ? Less we forget we shall all ( Black, Brown, White, Red, Yellow ) shall go back to The Source.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bowrider

    Ironically, the left bias the CNN painfully displays in this story actually creates racisim, the very thing CNN would like everyone to think it is prevalent in this nation and needs to end. First off, Zimmerman isn't white. And, CNN wouldn't be making any issue of this if Zimmerman were black. Although I don't think Trayvon was completely innocent, I believe Zimmerman took advantage of a law for which he was well read, and therefore saw an opportunity to shoot a young kid he didn't want in his neighborhood. For that Zimmerman is morally wrong. Whether he is legally wrong is yet to be determined.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jessica

    my Question: why did he Kill, instead of possibly Wounding? you shoot the average person in their knee, I guarantee, they will NOT be moving. I don't care who it is or what color they are, wounding is better than killing.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fan The Flames

      Simple answer my friend. It's hard to hit a kneecap on a moving target, unless you are very experienced. Additionally, and maybe I'm cynical, but with only one side of the story he is unlikely to lose in CIVIL (not talking criminal here) court if they are unable to bring charges against him. Had he simply wounded Trayvon, the family would have sued the hell out of him.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Louis Lipson

    Since Trayvon isn't here to defend himself, everyone knows Zimmerman can assume any defense he wants, and knows he won't be easily challenged. The "Stand your ground" law is some worthless defense for this murder. Trayvon was unarmed, and didn't provoke anyone. Zimmerman was told not to pursue it further by police. It looks pretty clear to me. Zimmerman should be in jail for murder. And those who don't enforce the law against murder should be out of work. This is a tremendous injustice. It's sad to see this going on today.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bowrider

      Louis, you're ignorant. Were you there? How do you know Trayvon didn't provoke him? It looks clear to you but it's not because you WEREN'T there. You can't go around arresting people without evidence that they've committed a crime. If and when that evidence is presented, Zimmerman WILL be arrested. Until then, do some research and spare us your ignorant comments.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. c

    The man who shot him was mexican with black family members. Racist, really??? I personally think he got over excited about 'catching' the person who was breaking in houses. He should be charged with involuntary manslaughter. I dont think he should get off, but, I dont think it was a hate crime. Whatever that is, all crime is hateful.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alexk

      The reason its being described as a racist act is because Zimmerman assumed Martin was one of the people responsible for break ins because he was black. There was nothing about Martin that would lead a reasonable person to suspect he was a criminal. Similarly its disparaging that the police did not bother to run a background check, perform a sobriety test or even take Zimmerman in for questioning after the shooting. The police believed Zimmerman was white and assumed he was in the right and the dead black man was in the wrong.

      If you don't see how prevalent racism is in our justice system you are intentionally ignoring it. Blacks are almost 4 times more likely to get the death penalty in this country than whites who committed the exact same crime. Blacks are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated even though they are no more likely to commit crimes than whites.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Candace Clough

      oh please, if I had a nickle for everyone who knows an exception to their favored stereotype... It usually starts with "my black friend... "

      March 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      The "Racist" allegations apply to the Police Dpt not necessairly the criminal that shot the kid.
      I can see how another dead (insert n-word here) would not matter to the nation as a whole...that is the PROBLEM!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • amg0327

      Zimmerman is not Mexican, and you stating that totally disvalues your comment due to your ignorance of the subject

      March 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. FEDUP

    racism, tha's these people's life line. They get to use whenever it's convenient and helps justify there warped sense of values. When the shoes on the other foot, no chance.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ukonne.

    Stand Your Ground!what an impetus,an insult to Martin's family and a blackmail to the rest of the world.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Fred

    Blacks like to make everything about race otherwise they would be judged on their own merits which do not amount to a lot. Not one black mentions the fact that the neighborhood had seen several robberies recently all commited by blacks. No wonder they have a community watch on edge. Blacks may be too simple-minded to understand.

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

      will you please keep facts and truth out of the post, please! Thank you.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carlos Mosley

      Fred you are an idiot, you must feel inferior to blacks. Its people like you that are holding our country back. Do you American to Sunni and Shihite like, or would you prefer to move forward to make this country good for all, not just
      a few. I'm not racist but its people like you I would like to punch your card.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. English101

    @ cc
    Umm I have never been corrected by a troglodite......until now. Hows my english? Leave the heavy thinking to people who can do it.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. the_dude

    Blacks have no one to blame for the way they are treated but themselves. Ridiculous ghetto culture.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • English101

      The Dude abides.......the Dude abides. Its the same as African inhumanity to Africans

      March 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • equility4ever

      How much education do you have? Do you know the meaning of "ghetto"

      Someday illiterates like you will bring this country down

      March 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. kim

    I think they should snap and riot Florida is garbage anyway maybe it long over due.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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