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 Change.org 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 Change.org.  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 Time.com, 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. Will

    I love the news... this whole Trayvon martin case is BS, the media is just using race to get stories. What they dont tell people is that the photo everyone sees is from 2008 when he was 13-14 years old.. this is a current photo.
    http://matchbin-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/public/sites/312/assets/C54R_TrayvonMartin1.jpg

    he was 6ft 3in... and weighed over 200lbs.. not the 140lbs he looks in the 2008 photo. Also they dont mention that there had been 2 Black youths breaking into houses and apartments around the neighborhood and that He matches the description of these youths, especially when he is in a hoody and its dark. Im not condoning Zimmerman however, I am not going to race to burn this guy because the evidence must be looked at without bias. If this had been a small child, I might feel same way, but this was not a small child, age wise yes, but physically, This "KID" was an adult. We must let the evidence and the police do their job. Also... Zimmerman is not white.. as the media keeps refering.. he is Hispanic.. and as his father stated "George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members" So MEDIA.. stop making this a white on black hate crime.. when clearly.. if it was a hate crime its Hispanic on Black.....

    March 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • r-hope

      Actually, CNN initial reports were the Zimmerman was HISPANIC; then they reported that the police records (or is it vigilante records?) have him down as WHITE. In another article today, CNN repeated that confusion: that his family says he's hispanic but the records say he's white..
      My point: his race mix-up is because of the records the authorities have on him – not a media creation

      March 22, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • hokie774ever

      People this is more than just race. As a Latino I believe Zimmerman was in the wrong.

      As a security guard he should have some kind on non-lethal weapon to do his job. He is not law enforcement. Even if he has a permit to carry, he was on the job as a guard. The problem is the stupid stand your ground law that allows people to overreact and commit murders. For example somebody disagrees with you and gets in your face and then you shoot them in cold blood, you could claim self defense. As a human being you do you really believe that person deserved to die? If you do you have major problems. "You live by the sword and you will die by the sword"

      March 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. theinternet

    if Zimmerman is white, why does his father refer to him as a spanish speaking minority?

    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.

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

    Since I first heard of this story there is only 1 true question that sits in the back of my mind. Mr. Zimmerman was not charged because of this "stand your ground" law in Florida which to my understanding falls into place if you feel threatened or feel that you are in danger. How could Mr. Zimmerman claim that he killed this teenager in self defense because he feared for his life. Lets look at the facts, he willingly was following him not only in a vehicle but on foot as well. Who should of really felt they were in danger....Trayvon Martin I am positive must have felt that he was in danger. He was in an unfamiliar place, visiting, & has a man following him not only in a vehicle but on foot. My question would be if roles were reversed and Trayvon had a gun & was following Mr. Zimmerman who would of only had skittles & tea and shot & killed him would the stand your ground law still apply??? Highly doubtful...sad but true.

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

    Who was the mastermind that designed a post where your comment replies, default to the bottom of the page, nowhere near the post you replied to.

    Good job, you must have worked on Breitbarts redesign as well.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Harold

    A Kansas City 12-year old white kid was followed home by two 2 16-year old black teenagers who poured gas over him and light the gas mocking him by saying "You get what you deserve....white boy." This was never covered by CNN and the media. It was never considered a hate crime. It never will because of the bias of the media and Eric Holder.

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

      "A Kansas City 12-year old white kid was followed home by two 2 16-year old black teenagers who poured gas over him and light the gas mocking him by saying "You get what you deserve....white boy." This was never covered by CNN and the media. It was never considered a hate crime. It never will because of the bias of the media and Eric Holder."

      Because its been proven that the mother inflated the whole story, and the kid had 1st degree sun burn.

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

    why would a racial slur matter...if the kid shot someone,he deserves to pay the price...or was it the other way?.. so i think..as should all of you..but it is not right when races on races kill each other, but when a "white-person" kills someone its portrayed as racism...it's very..very..stupid...
    ...but i do think this has something to do with black people and their incapability to stop being racially hypocritical...so I've noticed over the decades...(I'm not racist..but i do bevel there was a distraught relationship between the two racially...)
    ~and the use of the word "black", is not a racial comment...its meaning that maybe there's people who have black skin pigmentation, and don't have African-American blood in them, and you also don't see people calling "whites" Anglo-sax-an-Americans... do you?~

    And the fool who says war is never an option is subterfuge, and deserves death none the less

    but i also have one more thing to say before i go...why is it that when a black person called a Mexican b*an**, or a white person C**ck*r, or an Asian c**nk, its not racist...but when any pother race calls a black a n**ger its racist...tell me why this is...because "blacks", the black who live in the so called "hood" as this kid probably did...they seem to forgert that they dont have immunity...but the fu**ing government thinks they do...just like how a black man or woman can say black power on tv...or in general but when a white person says white power it is racist...i don't understand...(and the two people were Mexican and black... )...AND HUMANS AVE DAMMED THEMSELVES TO IMPURITIES SUCH AS DIFFERENT RACES MIXING....

    March 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • hokie774ever

      Delmos you make no sense. Race will always be an issue. When you look at someone you, I , anybody already has an opinion on who they are as a person. It is unfortunate but the truth. Until we as human beings start putting ourselves in others shoes we will continue to kill each other. And by the way biologically speaking mutts (racially mixed impured ones as you have claimed) are the most resistant to disease.... biologically speaking

      March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. George

    I wish the guy had a last name like Jose, Flores or Rodriguez or something hispanic. People think zimmerman is white and that's why this is a big racial issue. I'm not white BTW, I'm brown. Not hispanic either. So go figure.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. baj4q

    If it is ok to shoot unarmed people, would the supporters of Mr. Zimmerman care if somebody shot him?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • theinternet

      its like you dont even think as youre typing words.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jeanne

    jeff: yes, he says punks.......clearly.......and he's associating him as a punk from the "hoodie" he was wearing, if the kid was in a regular "no hood" sweatshirt, or the football jersey that he is pictured in, this kid would be alive....sad, but true....the hoodies are bad news, just wear a black ski mask and see who gets shot......

    March 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Beer Summit

    I don't call demonstrations and mob mentality a positive discussion on race.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Feast of Beast

      Point!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skegeeace

      Demonstrations have been going on since the American Revolution- what are you talking about??? Mob mentality is an ENTIRELY different thing from a peaceful demonstration. If anyone knows about mob mentality, it's the KKK.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Anchorite

    Whether the killing was racially motivated, or Zimmerman used a racial slur, which I don't believe, is not important. The racism of the Sanford PD and CNN commentators in automatically defending him, absolving him, and trying to demonize the victim using anything they can, such as the fact that he was on school suspension, is of critical importance. If the killer was only arrested and tried, this could be settled by a jury of his peers, but the fact that the state of Florida is so racist that nobody there is applying a single standard of justice to citizens of different races means that black people, all of them, are second class citizens and are in real physical danger. We should all be outraged by that.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • jwk1

      Have you ever heard – innocent until proven guilty? Zimmerman is innocent unti/ifl a court finds him guilty.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Fortis

    So I was just wondering; with this law if a person comes after me in a public place, because they feel reasonably threatened (for whatever reason), and I decide to fight back, because I feel reasonably threatened, are we just allowed to duke it out on the street till one of us are dead? Bit of a paradox.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fortis

      But hey, maybe this way public dueling will become mainstream again.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. abbas

    I would request the authorities to register this murder case against him and look into this murder seriously in order to save other people life who walk day and night. thanx

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

    I think Zimmerman was wrong for what he did, but I am getting tired of all this race crap. Black people kill white people all of the time, and it is supposed to be sooo dangerous to be a black male? That is laughable. Black males wearing hoodies should be afraid of black males wearing hoodies... they are the ones who usually the ones who pull the trigger.

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

      Chris are you black??????? hmmm I didnt think so!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. cab

    the internet....

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

    I'll rephrase, I hope they KILL your kid, how's that better?

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