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. poinpounderthe3rd

    The Mayan calendar is ticking folks... Tic-Toc...Tic-Toc. You better start praying to you're gods when they come down in their spaceships. The apocolypse is coming. This Republican is prepared...

    March 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. lmc2

    Make any law and someone will find a way to abuse it. This self appointed watcher with a gun has used and abused the law and there are no eyeball witnesses to call him a liar. It can be inferred from the recorded telephone conversations that he abused the law but I doubt that it can be proven.

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

    I'm seriously not a racist but let me say this. I attend university on a college campus in a decent area of Chicago.

    When there's a crime on campus, we always get an e-mail. The suspects of these crimes are young black teens about 80% of the time. This is a trend. Why shouldn't we on campus be more fearful of black people based on the numbers alone?

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

      You are right! We should shoot them then I guess..... IDIOT!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Johnson Huffman

    It is easy to criticize an apparent abuse of force. It is hard to comment the image a black teenager make in the society. People only cares about them when they are treated unfairly, society never require the same level of achievement from them comparing to other races. You guys, if you support black people, can you realize they can achieve the same thing like other races? Can you quit pampering them?

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

      AMEN!!!! This is one African-American woman who agrees with you. We should care everyday.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. OneWorldOnRace

    Everyone keeps harping on this innocent 17 year old (which I believe he was in this case), however we must not forget that being a "kid" does not necessarily mean innocent. Has FL already forgot the 16 year old black boy who gunned down a white St. Pete police officer? My point is that not all "kids" are skittle and iced tea wielding youths, some carry and use guns! I didn't see or hear about Al Sharpton coming to FL for the family of the aforementioned police officer. No nationwide outrage, no "Million Badge March", nothing.

    I have no idea in the world why there was a confrontation, he could have left the kid alone, and let the police handle it. I just wish there wasn't such a "jump to conclusion" or quick to pull the "race card" mentality with everyone in the media.

    Just food for thought. RIP Trayvon.

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

    the media will not be happy until some riot breaks out and innocent lives are lost again. This could have been anyone's nephew, son, brother. I get it. It is a tragic, needless loss of life. But to just pound the airwaves, TV, media, newspapers, with pictures and antagonizing.......just not the right thing. Typical media BS!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Johnson Huffman

    Why when a white man or asian man get attacked by black teenagers, there are no one standing out to point the fingers? Do you consider black teenagers are just naughty and it is their civil rights to beat up other races?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. devon

    Get over the racist thing. Jesus people, simply put, given the amount of evidence and given the amount of agencies digging into this you would think that the guy would have been arrested by now if they had anything. This is what happens when people of a neighborhood choose to ignore what is going on around them and stay out of things and not cooperate with the police. I mean jesus, with all of the hate going on against white people I would be afraid to come forward and give any information.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Woffy

    "Blackmaleness"? Really? So i suppose that I am perfectly safe walking down the street as a white male? Now I do not know what happened to Trayvon but one thing is certain, it was tragic and wrong. However, using this to champion a "potential fatal disease" (I didn't know race could be such a thing) is stupid and wrong.
    To get back to the actual and real story, Zimmerman should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law. Hopefully, we can get to the bottom of it, but the bottom line is unless we have an eyewitness or Zimmerman cracks, we have no idea what happened. If Martin actually threantened him (unlikely) or he decided to kill an innocent kid. If the law says he did (and they hopefully have more than a supposed racial slur on a 911 call) then he should be sent to death or life in prison.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Get Real

      Obviously you are safer walking through a gated community in Florida that is being patrolled by a vigilante, self appointed watch captain if you are white.

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

    I think Treyvon was a patsy. Zimmerman was a skilled assassin hired personally by Barrack Obama to take out the young boy. Obama knew that with the race card and Al Sharpton, this case would garner enough media attention to create a nation outcry for the banning of all personal firearms. Thus he could have the means to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Treyvon's death was Obama's fault.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. 1crusader

    According to some who have reviewed it, the police chief's report on why his dept. handled the case the way that they did, doesn't hold water.This chief and /or his force appear to be either negligent, incompetent, biased, or all of these.The tape , alone, demonstrates that Zimmerman was the aggressor. Trayvon didn't haven't a gun, and Zimmerman had a 9 mm hand gun, which the police didn't even confiscate.Trayvon was blood-tested, and Zimmerman, the perpetrator, wasn't. Zimmerman wasn't even formally questioned, nor were witnesses who voluntarily came forward to tell what they heard ( or saw).The chief, and his "lead investigator" should be fired.It isn't their role(s), as the chief seems to think , to be the judge and jury; but to do standard police work in gathering evidence, questioning the perpetrator, and they didn't do it.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • shay

      Not to mention that this young man's body sat in the medical examainer's office for 3 days and they didn't think to call this young man's mother and father that were frantically looking for him. Seriously? They had his cell phone why not call to find his family. This was bad police work and you have to ask your self why? I hate to use the race aspect to this because I believe that this is such a "human issue/event" this could have been any young teen or any color walking home .

      March 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. wowwow

    I think most seem to miss the point here. The guy with the gun was acting as a community crime watch situation. He takes action where he had no right and for obvious reasons, he was clueless to what is a crime. I am white and live in a hispanic community and I get this type of situation towards me when I don't do anything all the time. It is the police job to patrol not the local yahoos. And this is a perfect example why. The bottom line here is lack of education. Every time I ask why this kind of thing happens all I get is "because there is so much crime here in Florida" What a copout. If this is why then anyone should be able to see the difference of a crime and what isn't a crime.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Don F.

    At the moment, I am less concerned by the failure to arrest Zimmerman than by the police department's lack of investigation and seeming willingness to adopt unquestioningly Zimmerman's account of what happened. This is particularly disturbing in the face of the evidence that seems to be leaking out.

    Having been involved in a supposed altercation that resulted in a discharge of a firearm and subsequent fatality and the fact of a prior altercation central to whether a crime had or had not been committed, it would seem prudent and professional to record for the record that bruising of Zimmerman's body and collect evidence from both parties relating to possible aggression and/or defense.

    I can say that as a middle class white male, if I had been, as a teenager in this day and age, pursued by an unknown adult male twice my size in a secluded area I would have done my very best to escape and if grabbed I would have fought with all I had, and that I would expect my teenage sons to do the same.

    If Martin were the agressor, he would have led with his weapon if he had one. If I were Zimmerman at 200-250 being attacked by a 100-125 pound pipsqueek, I would have thrown him over my shoulder. If I were Zimmerman attaching I would have tackled the kid to the ground as that would be the best way maintain physical control over him. I also have to ask myself what would posses a 100-120 pound youth to attack (without weapon) a person twice as big as me.

    The discrepencies between these common sense thoughts and the proffered story should have given any competent investigator pause and cause for careful investigtion. As Kojak was fond of saying .... "It stinks".

    The police seem patently uninterested in determining whether or not a crime had bin committed.

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

      Zimmerman was stupid and brought this on no doubt, but this kid was 6'3" and a football player, hardly a pipsqueak, and also suspended fro school for 10 days, possibly for fighting, so let's not distort facts and let the FBI do their job.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  14. palintwit

    If the tooth brush had been invented anywhere else but in the southern bible belt it would have been called a teeth brush.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Classified

    I am sorry but I take no sides in this matter. As always an African American, Black or what ever one would like to be called or label themselves as. It is alway a continue issue being racism towardss, once again African American, Black or what ever one would like to be called or label themselves as. Each time one if these incident take place whether black, white, green, blue. Which it does all over the nation, only when it happens to a African American. It is always an issue. I always wonder if the shoes were different, will the same group of people, ( black, white, green, blue, ...), would they take it this far.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      Did you not read the article? It included a story about a black man in Florida who confronted a white male and his kids on a neighborhood basketball court. The black man was upset that the white man's children were skateboarding on the court. A scuffle ensued and the black man shot and killed the white man. The black man was arrested and is on trial.
      If you listed to the witness accounts and the 911 tapes in the Martin case, Zimmerman was driving around in his car-saw Martin walking (home from the store), followed him even though the 911 operator told him to he shouldn't do so, lost track of Martin, got out of his car when he caught back up with him, Zimmerman confronted Martin while he was on the phone with a girl, pushed him over, neighbors heard Martin screaming and wailing for help and then Zimmerman shot him two times, killing Martin. What was Zimmerman 'standing his ground' on? Zimmerman initiated this entire event in which resulted in a teenager being murdered. Last time I checked, people have the right to walk around in their neighborhood and shouldn't be confronted simply because someone else is paranoid.

      It's unfortunate that when a story even mentions race, most people decide not to educate themselves on the facts of the story and instead selectively hear what they want. Therefore 'it couldn't be' race related, right? That would be to honest for us Americans to face up to, right? White people are not the only race capable of being racist. I think any race is capable of it.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
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