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. NorCalMojo

    CNN executives are drooling at thought of the money they'll make if they can work this into a race riot.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Breed11

    Generalizations are the way dumb people explain complex realities. A guy shot an unarmed kid. That's it. The race thing, while interesting, does not matter. There are no "these" people or "those" people. It's just Zimmermann and the kid he shot and the police figuring out if there is a crime or not. Everything else is just inflaming passions between "groups" which has nothing to do with 99% of any of those groups.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. kandy321

    Hey Skolnik, when you're done with the interview, Russell would like his salad tossed.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tom

    The author's comment to young black men that they might die today because they are black is sadly true. However, statistically speaking, being killed by a bigoted vigilante is a lot less likely than dying form a drug or property crime (why is no one as upset when a kid is killed for his sneakers?) or a drive-by shooting. Zimmerman should have simply stayed inside. He had no reason to approach Trayvon. He needs to be held accountable. But let's not overstate the risk of young black men dying solely due to his skin color and predjudice. Let's focus on the greater risks like drugs, property crime, poor schools, and unemployement.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      Very well said sir.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gracie

      Tom, I agree with you. Why the killer got out of his car and chase after Trayvon on foot?? Why not listen to the 911 dispatcher telling him to don't go after him. He could off just follow him in his car.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sacmar

      This is probably the best comment I've read on this subject. I think there is some outrage over random crime and drug use, but it's so engrained in our society and communities that no one is surprised when someone is murdered or dies of a drug overdose. We really do need to focus more on education and giving our children positive role models.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Chad

    It's obvious Zimmerman followed this kid. He probably approached him and the kid probably said something like leave me alone. There may have been shoving. But this kid was 17 and Zimmerman is a grown man. He should not have had trouble with this kid, if he did he is weak. To pull a gun out is wrong. It was murder.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ted

    if it was a white kid no one would have cared, get over yourselves, its not racism, its self defense, my condolences to the parent of the boy. stop creating racism, the kid was black, he could have been of any ethnicity the outcome would probably have been the same, an overconfident rent a cop trying to be a bad ass. stop wasting your time writing about this.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      If it were a white kid; the killer would be in jail. And yes, you could associate. However, because the kid was black, you could care less. How many black people do you actually know and associate with? How many do you invite into your home? Few, I am sure.....

      Your disassociation is obvious..

      March 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      I agree with you, it has nothing to do with the color of Trayvon's skin, but JUSTICE must be served. You are talking about a life, we all have one opportunity at this thing called life, we all come this way once. How dare, this demon possessed man, Zimmerman, take another person's life just because he thinks he can. Why wasn't he in Afghanistan or Iraq as it seems he want's to kill. He is evil and needs to be off the streets.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gracie

    I am a full-blooded Hispanic and the Hispanic community are outrage of this event. I cried and said a prayer for Trayvon. And I will continue praying and doing what I can to bring this killer to justice.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. rell87

    Zimmerman is Hispanic. Say it with me now... H I S P A N I C. It is not a case of a white man killing a black kid and a bunch of white cops covering for him. It is one minority killing another minotiry and some lazy. possibly corrupt cops not doing their jobs properly.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      Notice that the very same people that that accomplished nothing but collect and make money by creating confusion with their banter to divide are involved.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      Do you see why stuff like this keeps happening over and over again – it is true it has nothing to do with race. So why is it important to point out that he is hispanic? why do you refer to people groups as minorities?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Smarg

    What a bunch of leftist anti-white racis garbage.

    Thank you, Mr. Zimmerman, for protecting your neighborhood.

    Bring it.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sacmar

      Protecting it from what, a kid with candy and a drink? Wow, big man. He took down a kid armed with Skittles and iced tea. Please.

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

      Hell shall be the home of Mr. Zimmerman if he does not repent.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ????

    Zimmerman didn't kill him, the GUN did.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Christopher

    Blacks kill white people all of the time. This story is becoming a bad joke.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • NO JUSTICE IN AMERICA

      "Black people kill all the time, this story is a joke?" So are you saying that when blacks kill, there's not condemnation by the black in the community? When blacks kill, you think other black call for justice for the victim? When blacks kill, you think other blacks don't feel sorrowful and angry? And when blacks kill whites or people of other races, you thing other blacks don't feel sad and angry? This is not just a black/white thing as the victims's mother said but a right/wrong thing and Zimmerman murdered an innocent kid in cold blood. Let's face it, if it was the other way around, I'd still be angry for the victim if the victim was white or of another race and the same is to be said of millions of people of all races around this country who are calling for justice. Let's face it, America would be a better place if bigots like you stay in your trailer in your confederate jim crow south!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. greg

    Zimmerman looks hispanic to me, not white. That doesn't mean race isn't a factor in what happened, just curious if he hispanic.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • yup

      it's my understanding that he's cuban.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      Hispanics are more racist against blacks than whites. Check how blacks are treated in countries like Columbia, Argentina, Venequela, Brazil and on and on the list goes. Even Indians, and Arabs are prejudiced against blacks. The chinese seems to be a little more tolerant. Truth is truth, in fact, every race is prejudiced against black people. It is my understanding that Black Americans are the most successful blacks in the world, and by the way, I say Black Americans and do not mean anything by it. I could say African Americans, but are they really. This again is some of the isims that's wrong.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Just a REALITY

    I agree with several of the postings . But whether he was hispanic or not . He aparently was wearing a hoodie and was black so that alone means something . I wonder if he was a white guy with a hoodie if he would have questioned why he was in the area ? That unfortuently is a "sterotype " that we must get through but I doubt we will ever . And really if you look at the statistics it seems as though its always the black man who is arrested for these kinds of crimes. Why is that ? Its unfortunate but that is the way it is ..I pray for the family of both involved because they will never have peace.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gracie

      It was raining that night Trayvon got killed. I too would be wearing a hoodie if it was raining.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • ftroy01

      And even though this is not the same situation if I am in an all white neighborhood and one of them walks through their he is dead no ifs and or butts!! and you better get used to it this as someone stated this isnt the first nor is it going to be the last.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. James

    Wouldn't the racist police see this as a perfect crime, one dead black youth and a Latino to send to jail for the crime? Two birds with one stone so to speak.

    The problem here obviously is the law itself and how it too broadly allowed use of self-defense. I do not believe you should have to run away everytime someone threatens you, standing your ground does not make you a murderer, but in this case it is obvious stand your ground was replaced by go out and seek trouble. Even by following Martin this was setting up a possible confrontation. So the law needs to be fixed.

    The other issue right now seems to be that there really is only one living witness for certain and that is the shooter. That can leave the police with a he said vs nobody else said case. With the way the law is written this may close them into a corner of not being able to prosecute even if they wanted to.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      ...and James, can I tell you something, Trayvon is dead, but Jesus Christ is alive. God sees and knows exactly what happened. I can tell you this, the law of the universe will kick in and Mr. Zimmerman will pay. People think that they can do wickedly and get away with it....every seed one sows they will one day reap, not in hell, but right here on earth. It does not matter whether the young man was black, white, asian, or hispanic – evil is evil. Unfortunately for Mr. Zimmerman he followed the voice of the devil who is now laughing at him, and he is going to pay a very dear price. He will pay, and he will be forever tormented in his mind. I have faith in God and in this country that they will do the right thing, now that this evil has been exposed. Justice will be served. Trayvon's blood is upon the head of this man, and yes, his blood is crying out from the earth for JUSTICE.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Judge Dredd

    What's the big deal? One black kid dead, oh well. There will be more.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • nick

      You sound like a SAD person, who does not value life. But instead you JUDGE a whole group of people like the shooter did in this case.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • triplel1981

      this is a sad thing black, white, whatever but all these people posting all the negative and racist comment i bet your co-workers don't know if you're racist be a proud racist at least not a closet racist shame on you

      March 22, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
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