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. nic

    last time it was a black man in Mississippi killed by white teenagers

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

    Why do they keep posting a picuture of this kid when he was 10??? Its amazing how they are trying to twist his image to sway public opinion. It is clear from just that presentation that liberal media is trying to erase the facts of the case and try it in the court of public opinion.

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

      Actually that is a recent picture taken just 3 weeks before he was killed. He looked young and please don't tell me that you've never met someone that looked young for their age. His mother said so but even if it was. Lets sitck to the human aspect of this. He was a child and the picture that they are showing I'm sure many ppl have similar pictures of their children doing the same things. That is what should matter is that insert your child in the photo and that could have been your child lying dead.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. TheDoctor

    So basically , lets just say I want to off someone. I take them on a trip to Florida, be real jerk, get them mad, and then after they atrtack me I just beat their head with a bat. Cool

    March 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. trey

    Has anyone ever noticed how only black people play the racist card and every other race plays the injustice card?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ron32

    Get the facts straight Zimmerman FOLLOWED the hooded person so that when the police showed up he could show them where he was. In the past, the police showed up , but no perp was there, because the the perp disappeared.
    When this suspect could not escape this time, he attacked the watchman, Period!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kile

    Isn't it funny that black men and boys are shooting each other in cold blood not the streets of America EVERY day and nobody seems to care, but a hispanic man who seems a bit paranoid shoots a black kid and suddenly there's a big uproar? What's wrong with this picture?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Whats wrong with that picture is:
      1) You compare gang activity to a person killing an unarmed kid.
      2) That you also think no one cares.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      An awful lot. Another picture that's wrong – when anyone other than a black person kills a black's a "HATE CRIME!!!" but when is the last time you saw hate crime charges on a black person when they killed a white or latino? It doesn't happen.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • neil_from_Tx

      Keeping black or hispanic aside, its a kid who died. A kid who was carrying candy. A kid wearing hoodie. every winter all kids wear hoodie when going to school. So are you going to shoot? It could be you or your kid or some one from your family.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • cab

      For 1. Ignorant people such as yourself, making made up analogies based on hollywood movies.

      2. pathetic people such as yourself trying to justify it.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bernadette

      The uproar is because this young, unarmed teen was KILLED, not shot or wounded. Unfortunately, there is alot of black on black crime, but don't forget white on white and so on....

      This is NOT the same setting, nor situation.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joshua Williams

      Kile why is a paranoid individual carrying a nine mi. gun. Are you listening to yourself. Don't compare this to other cases.
      This is a disgrace.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raver

      The difference is that those black people that you are talking about are criminals. The black person we are talking about is a 17 year old kid in high school.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vasya

      You speak the truth. Maybe if black people worked more on losing the image of thugs and criminals, and stopped killing each other, incidents like this would stop. As an immigrant myself I came to this country without any prejudice. I hadnt seen many black people at all in Russia. But having lived all my life in the ghetto that is Baltimore, MD, Ive become WAY more prejudiced. Now I actually have black friends, and there are certainly black people I respect. But you can see and hear those from a mile away. They are well dressed and speak well. Unfortunately the majority of black people (at least where I live) are ghetto hoodlums who dont care what happens in their "hood", their city, their family, their country, etc.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reply

      I agree, but the black men and boys that are shooting each other in the streets are in JAIL... this "hispanic" man is not... and that the problem... now ask yourself if a white boy or hispanic boy that was shoot and killed by a black man, would we have the same outcome... NO, he is in Jail. ...NO uproar required.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justice

      Youre right. Its wrong that people kill people everyday. So what makes this unique? Well if the hispanic paranoid guy kills the black kid and he goes to jail, then its not unique at all is it?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Scott

    Zimmerman was wrong to go after this guy. He will likely be convicted in a court if law. Why not wait to see the outcome before saying something stupid like this is a racial issue, a castle doctrine issue , etc. let the process do what it is designed to do. The race card died the day Obama won the election. Quit making excuses. I am a gun owner, supporter of individual right of self defense, and a conservative. The boy was murdered and his assailant will go to jail.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • visiopher

      I hope you are right. So far the assailant has not even been charged with a crime and is free with the gun he used to shoot down the unarmed teen. Had the victim's parents not been so persistent that would have been the end of this story. We can't always wait around for justice to take its course. In this case there would have been none if it weren't for the outrage by so many.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Diane Keichinger

      what court case there is none the police determined the shooter was right by white. When will white people get
      black have to fight for justice.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • PhillySW

      I'm Sorry, but your thinking that all of this racial inequality went out the window when POTUS Obama was elected is one of the reasons why racial inequality existed in America from the beginning, and why it STILL exists in the US. I do agree with you that we have to let the legal process take it's course.

      But answer this question. When have you EVER known someone that was drunk driving, NOT get arrested when stopped by law enforcement? Tryavon, a teenager was KILLED by an ADULT man with a 9mm, and Mr. Zimmerman is still free to walk around the public like he's going to the movies! He wasn't handcuffed or anything.

      If you think racial inequality went out the window, then you need your eyes opened to the complete picture, not just 1 side of the story, all do respect.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dizzy14

      Tell that thing about the race card dying the day that Obama became president to the republicans! As a black woman living in Fl I can absolutely tell you first hand that racism is still very prevalent!

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

      Scott I am sorry to tell you that racism didn't go away the moment President Obama was elected. Is it blatant no it's alot more subtle now. Nothing against you but maybe for you it is not something that you actually see because it's not something that you have to deal with but believe me it still exist and to be honest it probably always will in some form.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sacmar

    Do you wear a sheet at night and burn crosses on people's lawns? What you say about Whites in Black neighborhoods is so beyond untrue. My husband is White and we lived in a Black neighborhood for years. No one bothered him or anyone else. They kept to themselves and looked out for one another.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. No More Check Boxes

    When we as a nation stop asking people to define themselves as separate from other Americans, we may finally start learning to get along. Instead of checking the box that says __ African descent, __ Asian descent, __ Hispanic/Latino descent....we all need to check the box that says _X_Prefer not to answer. Let's start looking at ourselves and each other as AMERICANS.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • ncoclub

      I agree with you 100% BUT....There are groups of people out there that do not want to be counted as Americans. They show this in every facit of their lives. How they act, how they dress, what kind of music they play and yes, even how they name their children. It screems I WANT TO BE DIFFERENT and I HATE YOU because you aren't like me. Hate is taught, we aren't born to it. If I am in my car and I see someone walking towards me wearing a hoodie or pants down to their knees you bet I am going to make sure my door is locked.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • lol@you

      @ ncoclub – You're living in a very close minded world. How exactly does someone name their kid to mean they do not want to be counted as an American? What name would that be exactly? How ridiculous.
      And are you that paranoid that you would be afraid of someone with a hoodie and pants too big for them? Yet you'd probably the first target of a con man who dresses like you and talks like you and scams you out of all your money. When I see a kid with a hoodie walking my direction, I just let them walk right by, as I always have. I'm not afraid of kids with skittles and soda in their hands.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. DSBsky

    The biggest point I can make is this. If they pull another Rodney King riot. Send the military in and start shooting everyone.. I will be.. That crap isn't going to fly again..

    March 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob


      March 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • lol@you

      Who exactly are "they"? Maybe when you make a your "biggest point", you can use commas instead of sentence fragments. You sound like an idiot waiting for a chance to show how stupid you truly are.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jim

    "unarmed BLACK TEEN SLAIN by a neighborhood watchman" Glad to see CNN is maintaining its usual objectivity until the verdict is in.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amy

      How would you write it? What part of the phrase "unarmed BLACK TEEN SLAIN by a neighborhood watchman" is inaccurate? They checked his clothes; he wasn't armed. He was black. He's a teenager. He was slain. The guy who admitted pulling the trigger is known to be the Neighborhood Watch captain.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. eugene

    so many idiots commenting... why even open it up... clearly, we have many racists in this country...

    March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. babyunk

    First off lets stop saying zimmerman is white he is as clear as day a mexican second how could zimmerman honestly say he felt threatnd by trayvon he had a banger trayvon had a pack of skittles i guess he could say trayvon threw a skittle or two at him and he was justified by throwing a slug in his chest and that qualifies as meeting force with force. the dispatcher clearly told zimmerman to stand down had he followed those instructions we would not b having this discussion today. this is not a white and black or black and hispanic thing its about right and wrong and im sorry but skittles vs a bulllet just doesnt seem like a fair fight

    March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lost_boy

    "Neighborhood Watch Captain" ?? ...what a bunch of B.S. "law enforcement" ..I am a big man crapola.....damn I wish that kid had his own gun and had popped that Zimmerman.......cops....and wannabe cops....hate em all

    March 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Hating is probably what caused this...hating cops doesn't solve anything...i am always told to walk a mile in someone's shoes to understand him/her...i try to do that with the kids i teach...some days it is should try it...would you want to be a cop?...why not?...hate never solved anything

      March 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bob Katt

    This is a tragedy, but where is the black outrage concerning black on black crimes? Also the high percentage of illegitimate black children - where is the outrage?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Solange822

      You are beyond ignorant. Do you know realize that this story is NOT about race? Its about a man shooting an unarmed person and getting away with it. Now whether his ACTIONS were taken because of his racial biases are a question being brought forth in this article and others, but the story is not and has never been about a poor black boy that got shot. THE STORY IS THIS, PLEASE PAY ATTENTION: UNARMED TEENAGER GETS SHOT BY A MAN WHO PURSUED HIM, AND THE MAN WHO SHOT HIM GETS OFF SCOTT FREE! That is the damn story. So enough with the racist, sick comments trying to turn this into an opportunity to bring up any supposed wrong doing by anyone who's black. I know you love any and every opportunity to do so, but this isn't a valid option here. Unless you want to continue to show your colors as the true racist, ignoramus that you are, then go right ahead!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin

      First off that black on black crime is the product of structural racism. Why do our young black men get killed by other black men? Simple gang violence because when these kids come from poverty and have no outlet have no self esteem they need to find a place to belong and they look to gangs for that belonging feeling. It has been proven that most black young men will experience jail time for no crimes what so ever. When the "White establishment" stops pretending they are not part of the problem of segregation maybe than we can all hold hands and sing kumbaya. Stop pretending all of you care. The majority of you do not know the black struggle. You are all privileged because your ancestors left something for you. Your ancestor's who owned most of our slave ancestors.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
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