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. jeff

    PUNKS!!!!!! He's saying PUNKS!!!! Im losing my mind.. This is so irresponsible to pretend he's saying something else.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      You clearly need to clean your ears out. What he says sounds nothing like 'punks'.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. theinternet

    if this story had more white people in it no one would care. and you all know it. everyone stop acting like this is some groundbreaking news story. someone did something stupid. someone died. the end.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. palintwit

    Florida teabaggers own at least two copies of Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Donald in CA

    Even in a tragedy the haters are at work. The devil never rests.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jellylee2020

    Mr. Zimmerman's father claims that he grew up with minority. If all his family are Hispanic and his father consider Hispanic heritage a minority that still has no bearing on whether or not Mr. Zimmerman is a racist. I don't see any African American member of his family coming to his defense. Just because his family may be multi-racial it still doesn't mean that Mr. Zimmerman isn't biased against African American.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Image is Everything

    It is tragic that an innocent young man lost his life. However, the Black community needs to take a long hard look at itself for this very reason. When it became cool to be "gangsta" and follow the image of hoodlums, the overwhelming public image of the young Black male became that of a criminal with intent to do harm. The popular music is now filled with violence, hatred, foul language, and disrespect, which only fuels the fire. If a young Black man walks around in a hoodie, looking "gangsta" he shouldn't be surprised when others assume he IS a Gangsta.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ncoclub

    If I see someone wearing a hoodie walking in my direction I automatically lock my car door....does that make me a racist? If that someone is wearing a baseball cap turned sideways and has baggy pants hanging down to their knees do I do the same thing...Heck yes. If I hear loud "thuggish music" do I think the player may be a thug...Yes. If these things make me a racist than thats just too bad.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Solange822

      You can lock your door, hide under your seat all you want, and make a fool of yourself. What you can't do is go shoot someone because they "look" scary to you. What is so hard to comprehend about that? If I see you on the street, and you look like the neo nazi skinhead that you appear to be (based on your comments), do i have the right to shoot you, just in case? If your answer is no, then please quit with the ridiculous comments. Where do they get you people? I cant find one person in real life who looks at this story and somehow thinks the kid has it coming, yet you get on the internet and all of a sudden there are dozens of you. Do they allow internet access in prison or the looney bin?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. St Firebringer

    It's an open and shut case of murder. "No cause for retreat" is pretty much the nationwide standard in self-defense, as it should be. BUT in the 911 call Zimmerman clearly states HE GOT OUT OF HIS CAR TO FOLLOW TRAYVON. He is TOLD TO STOP FOLLOWING Trayvon by the dispatcher. He did not comply.
    There is no "right to pursue" standard in any self-defense doctrine. Zimmerman instigated any physical altercation (if there was one), then resolved it by shooting Trayvon. There's no gray area here.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Raymond

    When did hispanic become a race. There are black hispanics and white hispanics. In fact, Latin America is a very racist society. They try to hide their black population in most Latin American countries. The most racist white people I have ever met are white hispanics. They want to be accepted by other white people, so they act prejujiced against black hispanics and other black people. Black hispanics need to wake up and smell the coffee. They come to America and do not want to intergrate with black americans. However the white hispanics do not want them as friends.

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

      yea you will be telling us that there ar black mulattos anf whit mulattos..............

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

      I feel bad but agree with this. My grandparents are Cuban and have nothing but utmost, nonsensical HATRED for any and all blacks. Their friends post emails about how Blacks are rebelling against the country and all this crazy crap...

      I'm a conservative, but I will admit that there is a deep-rooted hatred in many Spanish cultures for dark skins. I know everyone is Different and Unique...but they act like THEY WERE ENSLAVED by Blacks lol so idiotic

      March 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. catman

    Really should not matter the color of the skin, it was a child killed. and no Parent deserves this white, black or whatever. its sad. please its not about race it about being a human being. You have put yourself in that family shoes. SAD!!!

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

    For the last time...this is a local issue that has only been writ large because Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida and the Speaker of the House of Florida before he was elected, is viewed as the likely next GOP Vice Presidential candidate. CNN and other outlets of the rapidly dying mainstream media keep running this story because they want to tarnish Rubio's reputation while linking him and the Republican candidate to supposedly racist behaviors. They know that he is inexperienced and largely unknown on a national scale, so they will use this incident to inoculate him.

    There is never, NEVER, this level of outrage during the far more frequent incidentts of black-on-white crime.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarKris712

      Really?......could your comment be any more WRONG!..........this has nothing to do with politics......a child is dead because of a trigger happy guy on neighborhood watch who should not have been carrying a gun in the first place.....and also you need to stop your race baiting.....statistics show the most victims of crimes committed by blacks are BLACKS...and to say that whites are, only add to the negative sterotypes that got Trayvon Martin killed in the first place.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |


    In a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, Zimmerman’s father defended his son, saying the portrait in the media is “extremely misleading.” The letter reads, in part:

    “George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.... The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth...

    March 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      Zimmerman is a white hispanic.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. eddie arvelo

    i ,am Latino and would never shoot anther human being rest in pease martin

    March 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raymond

      You are so right. There is good and bad in every race. I am only educating people in the fact that ther are black and white latinos. I went to Cuba and PR, and black hispanics are discriminated against in every aspect of life. I did meet some very friendly white latinos, but they were in the minority.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. cab

    You know who you are.... there are some posts on here that are shamefully racist apologists.

    Shame on you, and I hope someone shoots your kid!

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

      so mature. "i wish someone would shoot your kid".

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

    I think Zimmerman is a wanna be and should have never been issued a gun License of any type especially considering all the times he has called in reports before, that should have been a RED flag to the authorities. He for sure should have followed the advise of the 911 operator's advice when he said, " we don't need you to do that ". This should be put in the hands of the FEDS now because local law enforcement blew it. If you think it's all about Race I certainly didn't see anyone parading through NYC when 2 Black teenagers dropeed a shopping cart 2 stories onto an innocent white woman, and I agree with MAX it is to bad....................

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