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. Ben

    It would be nice if the press would show a current picture instead of ones of him as a child.

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

      does it matter what he looks like at 17? If so why? Would that change your opinion on who is in the wrong here?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mark

    Well as long as you continue to type safely from mommy's basement in anonymity I dont think you have anything to worry about.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dave williams

    nice photoshoped picture...the grandstands aren't at the right height....

    March 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. StrengthinNUMBERS

    Black basturds egged my house the other night for no reason...how about that???

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

      LOL ...

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

      Just from you saying "Black basturds" tells me that you probably deserved for your house to be egged...racist!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • ken

      I can see why.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. 1984

    That law is a license to murder without being arrested. People will agitate people they dont like because they know they can get away with shooting them with out repercussions. Florida will turn in to the Wild Wild West. I am definitely re-thinking any vacation to that state. Dont want to rub someone the wrong way and end up getting shot. That could have been my kid or anyone else's kid. Shot for what. absolutely nothing. That guy could have let the police handle the whole thing. but instead he took the law in his own hands. I don't care if he was the Neighborhood Watch person. He took a kids life over nothing.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. lonewolf

    The kids parents said it wasn't black or white thing but they are making it one. Shapton needs to keep his big a$$ out of it and as for Obama I don't need him speaking for me. All parents say the same thing my child wasn't doing a thing , jails are full of inncent people. Let me give you all a clue a hoodie in fl. Whats wrongwith this picture , he was up to something .

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

      lonewolf...any proof that he was up to something? As for a hoodie in Florida, you mean to tell me that you never heard of people wearing hoodies in Florida, and because he had a hoodie on he was up to something? You are lost!

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

    Wow, first off the guy is Hispanic not white. Now you uneducated racists in these comments will think "How can he be hispanic and have a name like Zimmerman?" I expect this from people who grow up playing victims and not educating themselves. Secondly this guyu does need to be put in jail. This has nothing to do with race from an investigative stand point. Was Zimmerman a racist? Who nows. Racist or not he needs to be held accountable.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. panax

    Look its simple all these hispanics and white people pray on the weak young and old blacks and they do that because they are cowards they wont confront strong black males and if they do they are always in a group bunch of punks is wat they are

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

      yeah ok. preying on the old avg young because afraid of the strong. U r what is wrong with society

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

      Ok there turbo-who is it again walking around in "gangs".....

      March 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • cnnlicksit

      OK calm down and take your meds.

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

      I think you are the COWARD and for sure a PUNK. That's why you hide behind your keyboard with your big talk.

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

      That's right! That's all we white and hispanic people do all the time – seek out and prey upon young, old and weak blacks. You figured us out. Ignorant, racist, uneducated fool.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jaime

      About 90% of gun crime is black on black. Add hispanics, and you're near 100%. But keep blaming others.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      You just have to love the media. Why is this "stand your ground" law even brought into play here. They are making this really confusing. The guy was in his car with a gun and confronted another guy, obviously he had every chance to retreat or avoid the confrontation altogether. That pretty much nullifies that point of contention. That law is obviously meant for you to defend yourself if you are PUT in a dangerous situation, not the other way around. So please, stop trying to push your anti-gun agenda at the expense of a teenagers death. What everyone should be looking at is why the shooter decided to get out of the car with his gun in the first place. That shows intent. Look at the shooter's actions, not all of this other Florida law and racist stuff. If you strip all of that out of the equation then you are left with a guy who got out of his car with a gun to confront another guy. An argument ensues and the antagonist who initiated the confrontation shoots and kills the unarmed individual. Simple as that. Please leave race and gun control out of this.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • GGX

      Way to generalize there buddy. *yawn*

      March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Chris

    This is without a doubt a tragedy for this poor family of this young man. I have kids and can not imagine. The problem with this is again racism is being brought into the conversation AGAIN. The general american public is so sick of the racism word being used every time something happens to a black person. The idiot that wrote the above story says being black is deadly. You are correct it can be. But not because some fat latino is going around shooting black males. It is because black male are going around shooting each other. So Mallory Simon's hint that being a black male is deadly because of racism in the United States is false. Has it happened. Yes. But isolated. Black on black crime is a epidemic in this country. Write about that if You are truly concerned about the issue. Stop using this young mans tragic death to overshadow a more serious issue that NO ONE wants to write about. If Al Sharpton and his other marchers want to protest start with the inner cities where black males are killed daily by each other.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • chippy1

      how about putting on black face, wear a hoddie, then walk down a (white) neighborhood street at night; settle your affaiirs before you do

      March 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terry Harris

      I am Black and agree 100% with your assessment. I am tired of Lil Ray Ray and Fiesta getting away with crime in Black communities.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philly

      You being more than likely a majority, can not possible imagine what is like being a black male. You have no idea what it feels like to be thrown against a police car just because you are walking down the street. The reason the word is out there is because it exist. I read all of these response and cringe at the words..Listen to yourselves. How can you say something like you are sick of hearing the word racism. That tells me exactly where your head is at. Black people kill eachother just like white people do, just like Latinos do..The difference in this case is..This young man was walking down the street..and this other non black man determines he is suspiscious and aggressively attacks him, gets angry becasue he had the nerve to defend himself against this attack and shoots him. It doesnt get more racially charged than this. Stop saying you are sick of hearing the word when there are people who live it every day. You truly dont know what others go through unless you walk in their shoes. There is no equality in the world. Certain people feel like certain people dont deserve the same rights, or treatment as they do. You can deny it all you want to, but truth is racism does exist..ask a black person. Ask young Mr. Martin..Oh you cant..He was gunned down for being young, black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kristinewt

    To say that the public outrage is just because of Zimmerman and his profiling is far from the truth. I think what prompted public outrage is how the Police handled the matter. I think that was missed in this article. Had Zimmerman been arrested and charged with a crime, Trayvon Martin would not be a household name.

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

      I absolutely agree, Zimmerman should have been arrested on the spot. That is the issue, I can not believe he was not arrested. This is so wrong to let that young mans killer remain free.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. chippy1

    Not just the plantation state of florida is to blame, its the armed terrorist ideology of this country; no man(or woman) is complete unless armed and ready to kill; no tv program, movie, vid game complete without its share of violence; pray for 1 hour on Sunday, then hate, steal, and lust for the rest of the week.
    Mr. Z was a primed ready to kill person, who was well taught by the media-and the "SYG" laws of the Sunshine State; backed by the neantherthals, and knuckle walkers of the state legislature and the NRA.
    We had Columbine, V-Tech, Tucson and now Sanford added to the American roll call of shame. As long as we tolerate lawmakers in the thrall of the NRA and other such interests, the more American cities we can add to this list. The more we tolerate the fugue of violence vomiting out of our media outlets, the more we can rely on having more cities added to this list., Take away the guns, and the people that make laws encoouraging this kind of behavior, you take away the possiblity for this kind of tragedy.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Yeah chippy take the guns away. Then the criminals will get them on the black market and no law biding citizen will have them. The last politician that took the people of his countries guns away was Hitler. How that work out. Good one.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Listen

    Who is to say that the gun man, Zimmerman, is responsible for his own actions. Today, we live in a society that is afraid of its own shadow. Neighborhood watch groups flood the streets with a mob mentality free personal responsibility. Isn't that why people join a neighborhood watch group instead of sitting on their front porch armed to the teeth. Until amateurs like Zimmerman stop uniting to brand their own form of street justice, stories like this one will keep happening. It's just unfortunate that for young black men walking home in the suburbs its call 911 or shoot first and ask questions later, fortunately for CNN the later occurred, but unfortunately for so many thinking about putting a down payment on a home and leaving their crime-riddled neighborhoods the later transpired.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Matt

    Hes not white, a hispanic shot a black guy.... What else is new shootings happen all over the country black on black, hispanic on hicpanic, asian on asian, as soon as a white guy shoots some one it is racist. Explain that?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • chippy1

      because HE IS WHITE!!!!

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

    If I was a black male or female I would be open carrying a handgun. If the state that I live in does not allow that I would have a concealed permit if that state issues one.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. izandro

    There goes my trip to florida...and I'm white! why would i go somewhere when someone can shoot me legally because they don't like the way i look.....chase me down and murder me, with the "police" milling around wondering how they can charge me posthumously. What an awful state

    March 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • chippy1

      why i left jersery, i dont know

      March 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
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