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. Akil

    If I am hispanic with blue eyes and blonde hair I am still not white because i am hispanic?


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

    I am a black of hispanic decent u people in this country are so screwed up yall need to travel the world more travel to panama and u will see how ur suppost to live everybody gets along whiter blacks hispanicks asians u people here have too much hate in ur hearts and thats the bottom line

    March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. longtooth

    As I've said earlier, I'm old enough to remember when this event woud have never made the news. There were no blacks or women on TV, and seperate black-white drinking fountains were common in the south. The thing that saddens me is, as I read these comments, I realize we have come a long way, and we have gone nowhere at the same time.
    That kid may have been good or bad, I don't know. But it's pretty obvious that he had no criminal intent, and that the "stand your ground law", which I basically agree with, is being misused.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  4. KATHY

    This attack on this child is the most obvious case of prejudice that I have even seen.. My thoughts are with his parents. Keep fighting for justice for your son.

    Prayers from Canada.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. DeeNYC

    Why are they protesting in ny when this happened if Florida? We don't have enough with the OWS losers?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Anthony

    The problem with gun control is every state can make their own laws. Federal laws mostly prohibit assault rifles and more leathal or military style weopons. There should be a federal law for the US stating you can only use deadly force in the event your life or the life of another is in immediate danger. If you shoot someone or kill them in any way, you would have to prove it was in defense of your life. How hard is that? The law should apply to any use of deadly force, since a knife can kill someone just as good as a bullet. I can plainly see that race was a factor in this case. It's a problem with human nature. You always fear what you don't understand. Every single race deals with profiling and racism. Until we can learn about eachothers cultures and realize we are all the same besides that way we phisically look, the sooner tragedys like this will not happen.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. unbiasedopinion

    honestly i dont know if it is racism or not and i think the race card shouldnt be pulled but to imagine the fact that you get shot for carrying a bag of skittles and an iced tea is ridiculous f the fact he was black i dont think anyone should get away with shooting someone and i have two thoughts on how he said thek id attacked first 1. even if he did just because someone punches you i dont think you can just kill them ive been in fights before and i was never sentenced to death so i dont know when they started saying if you hti someone then your going to be killed and my other opinion which i believe strongly is that he pulled it out his ass i think he said the kid attacked him so he wouldnt get in trouble for killing him im not on the black side or the white i have my own opinion and this guy should rot in a jail cell or fry in a chair

    March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mikrik13

    A jury of the suspects peers should determine murder guilt. The automatic play of the race card can only work against any event in modern America. Trial via media commentators rather than the court system is also inappropriate since it prejudices perspective jury members and seldom matches the evidence allowed to be presented to a jury in a court of law. This entire event is terrible to say the least. Let's try not to make it worse by not focusing on the facts of the actual event.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. poppajohn818

    First of all, this was a horrific death. But as his mother stated "he is your son" we must remember that the shooter is also "our son". I would not want to walk in some areas at night in NYC, Chicago, Indianapolis and so on. It is important that we remember that in order for justice to be served, we have to investigate without tainting the evidence or the jury pool. People jumped to the conclusion that the shooter was white, when his family says he is Hispanic and all hell broke loose. You can not legislate love. Today the way you wear your hat, your pants, your hand signals, your tone of voice & choice of words are as much a part of discrimination as the color of your skin. We have become divided from within and we need to change. People like Maher, Rush, Sharpton, Beck on the left & right can not dictate our opinions. We must take what they say, spit out the crap and build with the questions. I blame all of us in part for this division within America, including Obama & Congress. We all need to question and demand answers, then accept or reject the answers as we see fit and respect others that have a different opinion. We have no Leadership in Washington just divisive people. God Help Us

    March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jay

    Hey CNN how long did it take you to lighten George's skin the mugshot image. Did you use photoshop? Reminds me of when some news agency darkened OJ Simpson's mugshot. BUSTED!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sacmar

    Personally, I'm not sure this is about race, but I do think this guy took the law into his own hands. He was told not to follow the kid and he did. I don't think self-defense can be argued at this point. He made 46 calls to 911 in one year. To me, he sounds very paranoid and a little off his rocker. The police should have investigated more and done their due diligence because now it looks as if they were trying to cover something up. What? I don't know. It will be interesting to see what the grand jury and feds conclude once their investigations are completed. I admire the parents for fighting for their child.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. nonya

    Bet those hoodie wearing black thugs people stay out of those hispanic neighborhoods from now on.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jordi


    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. NC

    I believe that Florida's "Stand your ground" law really needs to be re-examined, This is about a 17 year old young man who had every right to be in that neighborhood being shot and killed because someone else thought he didn't . I find it equally disturbing that some "Adults" aren't able to have a civil discussion concerning this.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. fullaflatus

    If Trayvon was such a "good kid", why was he suspended from school? Most "good kids" are in school; not suspended!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • misshappenstance

      Exactly. So murdering them is the only option?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
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