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. all Wrong

    My problem with the case is the fact that the 911 Operator told him not to chase the boy. The police was on there way to the scene. Mr Zimmerman was looking for a confrontation. There is a reason it called neighborhood watch. He can not claim self-defense if he initiated the contact.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. King LeTroll

    how is Zimmerman a Latino last name?

    Shouldn't it be Taco or Garcia or Burito?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. palintwit

    Big sale in Walmarts gun and knife dept. Get a free autographed copy of Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster with every weapon purchased.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. RMAnderson

    If you look like a 'hood' you very well may be treated like a 'hood'. White or Black, with hood up, and hand in your waistband, approaching someone in dark, your risk of being shot goes up exponentially!

    I have sympathy for Trayvon and his family, but he was not asked to walk over to Zimmerman, he approached on his own, hood up, in the dark with his hand in his waistband. Not too bright.

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

      There is noting illegal about walking up to someone.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Not Likely

      He waked away from the car. Zimmerman left his car and followed Martin. If you don't know the facts, don't talk.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • john15:12

      He put his hood up because he saw a strange man following him. And Zimmerman approached him. Please get your facts together.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • gtfoh

      RMAnderson,
      That comment is beyond ridiculous. Are you an eyewitness in the case. Did you see how Mr. Martin approached Mr. Zimmerman? What records do you have that is so clear cut as to state that Mr. Martin approached Mr. Zimmerman with his hood up and hand in his waistband. All reports accounts indicate that Mr. Martin at one point attempted to run away from the confrontation and at the point of death, was laying face down in the grass with Mr. Zimmerman on top of him. So do us all a favor Sherlock and provide your evidence that he approached anyone with his hood up and hand in his waistband which I take it is your justification for being shot to death....

      March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • shut up

      SHut up u sound stupid too. Where did u get ur from KKK news??? Read b4 u speak.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Solitaire

      How do you know he was not asked to walk over to Zimmerman? If Zimmerman was chasing him, what do you think Zimmerman was saying? inviting him out to dinner? Singing him a song? My bet is he was saying "Stop! Come Here!"

      March 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Anonymous

    The laws are not written for the people anymore. The laws are written for the rich and powerful to stomp the people into the ground.

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

      !

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

      BS

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

      Anonymous, so sad, but I believe you are correct

      March 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC

      to those who want to change the law-or–weaken that law ?? i really hope you find yourself getting your ass kicked by a bigger person, what are you going to do ?? call 911 ?? good luck....the bad guys are going to win, i bet you.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Althalos

      In this world money is power sadly. Thats probably one reason why this man can get away with a crime like this.

      March 23, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. minnie

    I'm tired of this BS......Outrage??? Where is the outrage over blacks killing eachother by the thousands??? Where is the outrage over blacks attacking white people last summer? These people would not say a word if this was a case of a black person killing a white person.....it's all a bunch of BS

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

      U just sound so stupid.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • InVT

      People wouldn't say a word because if the shooter was black, he would be in jail right now.
      The outrage is about someone getting away with cold-blooded murder. Mostly because of a bad law, but also because he is white.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • shut up

      Name a time place and person that whn a black man killed a white boy he was still free 30 days later. Yall would hang us from trees just for lookn at a white woman.

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

      minnie that sounds stupid if it were a black that kiled a white no outrage would be necessary because the black person would be locked up under the jail with no questions asked think before you speak or do thats white peoples problem now

      March 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Solitaire

      Really? Do you think if a black man gunned down a white youth in exactly that manner, that the black man would not be in custody right now? I think the person who is biased is you.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Another Bi Racial Guy

    When this first hit the news, I could tell it would be overshadowed by a race issue, and the reason why? The media couldn't help but focus on the fact that one black person, and one mixed latino were involved. If this were a white kid that got shot, or an asian kid, there wouldn't be this sensitivity to race. The article would have run, one month later we'd be reading about the next murder victim from somewhere else in the states.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Al

    I hope you people that want to make race an issue that the guy that shot this child is just like the President, a half breed. But let's make a racial case of this and don't mention the fact that the adult shooter was what he was.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. kman

    It's very obvious that judicial system in Florida is extremely flawed!

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

    Where is the proof this was motivated by race? The guy should stand trail but not trial by media trial by jury. And what is this nonsense that no progress has been in racial equality. Things in this country have never ever ever been more equal if anything they are slanted in the other direction. You can not give a scholarship to a white person based on their skin color but you can give preferrential treat to others. Equality means no person is considered better than any other person period.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • propmgr

      Why was the kids being followed? Because he was black, no other reason....

      March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. What!!?

    There are many posters here who I wouldn't want on a jury if I was standing trial.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Foreverwar

    In Florida if you want justice, the answer you get is "just us"

    March 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. max

    this is ridic. its not racist. some WHITE Father was MURDERED in front of his little daughter by a black man... and no charges were brought on the black man. zimmerman shouldnt be charged at all

    March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dale

      link to this mysterious case of which you refer but provide no information of?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • WFB

      Get your facts correct before making stupid comments. In the case where the white guy was shoot by the black man during a fight, the black guy was charge (rightly so), and a jury that will decide if- in fact-the black guy acted in self defense. In the Martin case, a white guy shoot a black kid, however, the white guy was NOT charge, and there was NO jury (i.e., justice system) to decide if-in fact-the white guy acted in self defense – this is the way the law is supposed to work. The cops are not the ones who decide whether murder is justified b/c of self defense. Self defense is an affirmative defense used by a defendant in a court of law, Martin deserves to have a court of law decide whether his shooter acted in self defense.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • JJ's Mom

      That is not the case. Both should be tried. Wrong is wrong. I do not see why he followed the child. The officer on the phone told him to stay in his car. His life was not in danger if you follow someone that is not life threatening. To me he was lookingto kill someone plain and simple. I believe he would have killed anyone no matter what. He thinks this is the old west. People like this look for trouble. My question was if you are walking down the road do you look like a suspect? Why did the initial officer advise the onlooker to change their story? Also, here in the south (TRUTH) if it had been the other way around he would have been locked up by now. But the Casey Anthony's of the world can do what they want and get away with it

      March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. yellow rose

    I am a white Female – mother of four boys - this breaks my heart – Trayvon you have the face of an Angel – when I heard this though I have to say unfortunately society both side white and Black have created Stereotypes - most of our jails are filled with young Black men that sell drugs and do crime we need to somehow change this - YES there are terrible terrible white men – but the numbers are out there - Why do Black men get women pregnant then bail - they need to be responsible - then maybe the numbers would go down and the stereotype would change - This goes for the Mexicans as well - there is a stereotype they are all Gang members that sell drugs and drop babies

    March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mike

    I fail to see how someone following someone else (by their own admission) is standing your ground and given the fact there was no attempt to caution or warn anyone in any of the information released so far.

    Shoot first ask questions later...moron. Who would really want to live in a neighborhood with an armed moron running around or an area a police force that lacks the collective intelligence to see things for the facts for that matter.

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