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. bryce

    CNN has found Zimmerman guilty. Who needs a court or lawyers or a jury, we have CNN.

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

      You are sooooooooooooooooo correct!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. CHRIS

    I live in miami and let me tell u there are a lot of racist hispanics (especially the older ones) and for some reason a lot of hispanics consider themselves white

    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. GG

    People need to wait to hear all the facts. The only ones talking are the parents and the people that are helping to make up stories to fit their own agenda. I live in Sanford near the area and it was not raining that day or night, but the family is saying that it was to explain why he was wearing a hoodie over his head and creeping around this neighborhood. Sanford is full or crime and hoodlums like this kid. Why is no one asking the question as to why the parents are showing an old photo, not a recent one of the 17 year old, in the picture he was like twelve and it would look nothing like his current mug shot!!! Also Zimmerman was beaten up by this hoodlum, when the police arrived he had a bloodied nose and bruises from the little gang banger. When the investigation results are finally released from the Sanford PD, the truth will come out !!Zimmerman had cause to kill because he was threatend and did everything according to the law.

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

    Why can't Americans just accept, YES we have racial profiling and move on. it is a big lie if they say we do not have racial profiling. law makers while making such dumb laws shall keep the thought profiling of certain white suckers in mind. This profiling can be from both sides but the history speaks from one side only. Yes this case is a clear example of How rampant racial hatred still exists in an average American white brain.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. fullaflatus

    Trayvon was the instigator of this incident! He received his justice that night. End of story!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • GG

      AMEN No tax payer dollars spent either...

      March 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Debbie

      Please tell me how this young man instigated this sitution, he was walking home from the store minding his own business until this wanna be cop decided he was in the wrong place. I hope you never have a family gunned down (murdered) in the street for absolutely no reason. This is America and a person has the right to walk and live where they want.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • equility4ever

      So, you witnessed the whole story, WOW, I bet you also have PTSD and you were sleep walking

      March 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  6. atbigfoot91

    If I were Zimmerman I would leave town NOW. He is no more than a few days from losing his freedom for a decade or longer.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Shira

    I don't see why it matters that the shooter was Hispanic and not white. Societal indoctrination insisting that black men are criminals is not limited to a white audience.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. 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 thats the facts.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • mark

      agreed. there is too much hate in America

      March 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Santiago

      No doubt most americans are truly ignorant when it comes to race. They dont even know what a white hispanic is

      March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • IdahoPlant

      Racism is in everyone and exists everywhere. No one person or country is immune to it. It is human nature. The important thing is to recognize racism in one's self and work against it.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raymond

      You are right, Americans are very ignorant about the rest of the world. My question to you. Are you black or hispanic first?
      Hispanic means spannish speaking. Hatians speak french. Are they french or black? Black of course. Black hispanics
      think that their spannish last name gives them some status over other blacks. From my travels, no way.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Les

    This Zimmerman is a cop wanna be, but to turn this into a huge racial incident is stirring up a lot of anger and making a dangerous situation. Now they are trying to hear a so called "racial slur" on the 911 recording. I listened to it last night and couldn't hear it and it's a slur that no one uses any more like something from the 1940s. How many people will be injured or worse if the media doesn't stop inflaming this story that occurred a month ago?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Johnson Huffman

    Trayvon is killed by other black teenagers, not by a bullet. So many times, the black teenagers are the ones to start an attack on lighter skinned people, not only white people. They damaged their reputation so much that only the legal system in the U.S. protect them. The other race has no right to even comment on their behavior, because that is considered racial discrimination.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ian

    i just wish rev al sharpton, joe scarborough, and the masses (all of whom i love...really) had the bells to express the same level of outrage about the rate of black on black crime. its thru the roof, ladies, in case you didnt notice. you probably did, but i reckon its not pc to acknowledge that fact, right? let's not mention it. shhhhh.....i wont say a word.

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

      I agree with you they do need to pay more attention to black on black crime, it is unreal. It's sad the only time they step up is when it is a white on black or as this case a hispanic on black crime. Very sad!!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. fullaflatus

    This boy was not a "good kid". Why was he not attending school? Because he was suspended for being a troublemaker! Good riddance to bad rubbish!

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

      WOW dude when it the next tea party meeting?

      March 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Freakey toney

    shoot him up and his house too

    March 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mark

    anyone who defends Zimmerman is an idiot. you cant just shoot someone. wheres the law.... oh wait, we're in Florida.... nevermind.... and thank you Jeb Bush!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl DiGiacomo

      Some of us wait for the trial before breaking out the pitchforks and clubs.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  15. David

    This is a case of a fat loser with a big gun and tiny endowment who should be in jail. How any law enforcement officer in Sanford can stand by their chief or the officers who responded is beyond me. A pox on all your houses!!!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
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