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 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  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, 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. AllofUS

    I am not sure I am understanding how Zimmerman's act was an act of racism. Zimmerman is hispanic, right? I think he took his job a little too seriously and sadly a youth's life was lost. If we start saying this was an act of racism (maybe racial profling is a better term) then it will set a bad precedent for future similar acts. Hispanics being racist over blacks? Asians being racist over hispanics? Blacks being racist over hispanics? When will it stop being called racism?

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

    Its is beyond me how a man can shoot and kill an unarmed boy and get away with it .. period forget all the other points , that alone should be enough to fuel rage ... that law lacks any sanity or common sense. A grown man;s life was being threatened by a boy with a bag of skittles, seriously ? Can we shoot kids playing ding-dong ditch too ?

    and I am fairly certain, if a black man had shot a white boy, he would have been arrested, and probably beaten on top of that.

    this whole story is beyond ridiculous.

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

    does any body, ANY one know what exactly happened?
    but why there is a conclusion that it is 'injustice' ?
    what type of logic to use to conlcude from this single incident, that every black man is in danger?

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

      grown man shoots unarmed boy in his own neighborhood, and you don't see how this is an Injustice ? ... seriously ?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. RR

    His "injuries"? According to the police, immerman had a bleeding nose and bleeding on the back of the head. These are the easiest to fake simply because the physical wound is not visible in bleeding noses and back of the head (covered by hair). All he needed to do was smear the victim's blood on his own body to make it look like he himself was attacked. NOTE: NO mention of a black eye, bruised cheeks, swollen temple, cut lip or knocked out teeth or any injuries that would be harder to self inflict.No mention of cuts on the arms either. The bottomline? He almost certainly faked these "injuries".

    March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. USA


    March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Usa2

      Wow really dumb post.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. 60's Man

    I wish they would have explained "Stand Your Ground" in the article somewhere.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mikeybklyn

    I would bet 2 to1 Zimmerman was a PD reject.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JerseyJeff

    Racial issue or not, the man used excessive force. Even if Trayvon did hit him or throw his soda at him, how is that justification of deadly force?

    The man was obviously not in fear for his life, how can he use deadly force legally?

    Sounds like an over-zealous vigilante if you look at it in the mildest of perspectives.

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

      Under the existing law, Travyon Martin had more of a right to shoot HIM than vice-versa. After all, the guy was following him down the street.

      Stupid law, and this guy should be put away for life.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Enrique

    An eye for an eye. Just find a white teen n put a bullet in hus chest.

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

      Enrique - Zimmerman was Hispanic. Let me write that slowly so that you can understand: H I S P A N I C.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • HairlessApe

      Zimmerman is not white, you illiterate bug.

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

      Wow...really mature and's people like you that make me think that natural selection hasn't jump started yet.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • furrryPanda

      Eye for an Eye leads to a bunch of blind people so I do not think that is a good policy.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. fuzzy duck

    Cnn, you exacerbate the race problem. It is not just parents of black kids who have to decide how to explain it to their children but all parents. When my 10 year old daughter came rushing in to tell me a boy had been shot, it didn't even occur to her to say he was black, because to her skin color is not important and she never defines a person by their skin color. Therefore if I say 'was he the African American kid killed in Florida' I am then defining him in a way she hasn't considered and I don't want her to define people like that. She has a multicultural class at school with African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Europeans. The only thing she said once was there weren't many people like her in her class. When I asked her what she meant she said 'my skin is whiter than any one elses' which was merely an observation on her part.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ladypradege

    @John, the reason u dont hear about it is c if a black man kills a white man he is automatically arrested and prosecuted under the law. No questions. Dumb ignorance = John!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Raq

    What happened was a travesty of the worst kind. Had Zimmerman listened to the dispatcher & not try to do a police officer's job there would be nothing to discuss. No life lost because of how one is dressed. The "Stand Your Ground" law states when you or someone are being attacked you have a right to defend yourself or someone else without worry that if you happen to take the attackers life then we will not do jail time. Due to the attackers loss of life was done in self defense. "How does the law apply in this case when Zimmerman was following Trayvon in his car initially???"

    March 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. panax

    I guarantee u if I was the attacker like zimmer claim he was he would of had tha gun stuff up his azz

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


    March 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • The smart man

      Good if all you blacks stay inside then the crime rate would drop and we could close all the prisons.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • longtooth

      Don't drink so much coffee.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • DeShawn

      USA - blacks have been victimizing Whites on a growing (but media-suppressed) level since the 1960's. Hispanics may stand up to blacks, but not Whites - they are by and large the most cowardly of races.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • theinternet

      lol you say silly things.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. danny

    As a Canadian looking on one of the things we thank God for is the border .Theres no way on earth we could allow this nonsense and senseless killings ,hoarding of guns ,and downright and outright blatant racism .We do have our problems here in Canada but we would want to believe in a civilized modern democracy llike the United States this is an awfull example of what democracy looks like .How then can we look in the eyes of the butcher in Syria posing as leader murdering his people ,and tell him that this is what a model society looks like .Americans this is frightening.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      danny, if you think what's going on in Syria is even remotely comparable to the US, you have serious intellectual shortcomings.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
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