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. rtbrno65

    We have become a nation consumed by hatred and fear.

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

      Thats the point. A nation consumed by fear and hatred is MUCH easier to manipulate.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lee

    Why does CNN not carry the opinioin of the Florida state representative that sponsored the Stand Your Ground bill, Rep Dennis Baxley. See the full article at http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/03/21/trayvon-martins-alleged-attacker-not-covered-under-law-wrote/. In Rep Baxley's opinion: "Mr. Zimmerman's unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense as defined by the castle doctrine. There is no protection in the "Stand Your Ground" law for anyone who pursues and confronts people."
    The police's stance seems out of sync with the law's sponsor opinion.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John-117

    This very sad. I understand Trayvon's parents are distraught, but screaming "race" it wrong. There is no prove this way a hate crime, nor is there any evidence pointing to that. In fact the whole concept of a hate crime only fuels racism and divides society against one another. I'm white and I've been harassed by overzealous neighbors in my teens, does that mean they are racial profiling me? No. Does it mean people are wary of teenagers and strangers when crime has happened often in the area? Yes. I want there to be justice, but I think the parents saying this is a hate crime is racist in its own right. I don't think ZImmerman will ever serve a day in jail for this, yet alone ever be in court for the death of Trayvon. Its the laws in Florida that are messed up and need changing.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • John-117

      The parents are focusing on vengeance against Zimmerman, when they should be focusing on changing the laws in the state of Florida to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. Stop crying race and try to actually help people be demanding that the "Stand Your Ground" law be removed.

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

      The parents are focusing on vengeance against Zimmerman, when they should be focusing on changing the laws in the state of Florida to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. Stop crying race and try to actually help people be demanding that the "Stand Your Ground" law be removed.

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

      It's always a hate crime when a black person is killed by another race. Thats all they know.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    What happened to "Innocent until proven guilty"? Odd how the people complaining about the gun rights are also the same ones that don't feel the law protects them. If you trust your government, let them do their job and they will pursue a case if warranted or not. If you don't trust the government, then go buy a gun and protect yourself.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AncientOne

    Do the people who insist that Trayvon Martin's death was an act of self-defense truly believe that a teenager of *any* color is dumb enough to threaten a big man like George Zimmerman armed only with Skittles and a jar of iced tea? while talking to his girlfriend on the phone??? Anybody who feels that this was not a race-based hate crime should listen to the 9-1-1 tape. Thanks, CNN, for making it available to us so we could make up our minds based on evidence, not fear and rumors (P.S. I'm white, by the way, and don't live in Florida.)

    March 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      No, but I believe a short mexican guy is afraid of a black teenager in a hoodie that is fighting with him.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sandy

    Cheryl – You can't be this cold. He was a 17 boy. He could have been your son or nephew. Frustration at the world condition has done a lot of damage. I will pray for all of the people saying these things on this board and pray even harder for the country.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      How about praying for people to stop wearing hoodies at night, white or black

      March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. StrengthinNUMBERS

    CNN is the black folks TV station...everyone with a brain knows this is the most racist network on the aiirwaves and would love to see a Civil War start. Anderson Snooper could be the last GAY white generall of the black folks...!

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

      I'm glad I wasn't the only person that noticed that.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandy

      wow..did he really write that?

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

      cnn is based out of atlanta...what do you expect?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. GoGo Yubari

    Should we really be surprised that Florida messed this up (ie: Casey Anthony)? Afterall they do have the highest concentration of stupid people in the country.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. crump

    @ Max...what stereotype are you giving for your race? racist!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ackram

    Whether the shooting was racially charged or not should make little difference. The stand your ground law is what should be questioned here. The idea that a person can shoot another, without facing any recourse, is insane. Zimmerman, a 28 year old man, shot an unarmed 17 year old kid with evidence to suggest he actually went after Martin. Zimmerman should face a full investigation and a fair trial and then Florida should drop this stupidity.

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

      Exactly.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. Howdydoody

      So, because one person was killed, I won't say kid, because 17 is not a kid, everyone else should have to live in fear and run away from criminals???
      So, CNN has enhanced the tape and evey they can't conclude that anything racial was said, yet every one on the internet jumps to conclusions because it was a black guy shot by a hispanic. The racial issue won't die because the black "leaders" won't let it. If they stopped stirring the pot and yelling racism at ever chance, people wouldn't be up in arms about race. We might just see this as Over zealous neighborhood watch captain decided to be judge/jury/executioner. If it was a white kid that was shot, none of us would have heard about this story outside of FL.
      I would say let the Florida Highway Patrol dept, or another agency investigate the case. I wouldn't let the Fed DOJ touch it with a 10 foot pole. The current DOJ is crooked and underhanded I wouldn't doubt they would find evidence to link GWB to this somehow.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ray

    Since so many of the facts are not clear – this all has the feel of a massive rush to judgement – and a desire by a great many to project their political agendas and preconceived biases onto this tragedy. Let's get the facts straight before we turn into angry mobs of "us" against "them".

    March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Texas

    It's always racism when a black person is killed by another race.

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

      First of all, this is bigger than just race and a hate crime. It's about the fact that there are STILL people in this society today who judge and profile people, not only by the color of their skin, but by their demographics as well. Second, to say that it is only racism when a black man gets shot is a ridiculous and ignorant statement. That just negates your point, and makes you seem like a racist. That is the bigger picture, the color of someone's skin should play no part in profiling and should NEVER play a part in an innocent murder.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. NO JUSTICE IN AMERICA

    Well, if there is a trial, perhaps he would hire Casey Anthony's attorney! Then when he gets acquitted, perhaps he could get a book or movie deal! What a f-up country!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. StrengthinNUMBERS

    so what the hell is going to come out of this...should every white person sleep with his colt 45 under his pillow tonight?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mel

    quit with all the race BS already.....you are the reason discrimination will never die. My kids do not know a difference.....and there is none...until one day someone will pull the race card on him. And that won't be his fault that he will then look at races differently. Teach your children better than you behave.

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

      You may be right BUT it is racial profiling and by an amature/wannabe police type person. neighborhood watchdogs should never carry guns....never. They are out there looking for criminal activity and I say looking because that is why they do that. But they have absolutely no training in handling any type of confrontations but it does give them a bit og authority in responding to what they may believe is crimninal activity...again they have no training on identifying and dealing with criminal activity. The guy, Zipperhead or whatever, should be punt in jail.

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