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. Beer Summit

    I'm selling Mob Accoutrement:

    Pitchforks $10

    Torches 2 for $5

    Rope $2 per foot.

    Skittles $15

    Free Ice Tea with any purchase

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

    What I think is sad is that Trayvon's parents are saying it isn't about race but then theiir lawyer is. It should be about justice and only justice no black, white or whatever. This to me is the main reason that racial issues continue in this country is because they "black people" won't let it go everytime something happens they keep throwing the race card all the time.

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

    Let's change the scenario a bit: let's suppose Zimmerman was in engaged in a road rage incident and got out of his car and approached the other driver. The other driver "stands his ground" and shoots Zimmerman in "self-defense" because he has reasonable belief that he could be seriously harmed. Would we be saying that Zimmerman is to blame for getting out of his car? I know I would.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. firewaller

    This would have never happened to a white guy. If we would have seen a dark skin mexican with a gun coming up behing us we would have ran like a mofo.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Harry

    More details are emerging about this case. (1) Trayvon Martin was suspended from his high school in Miami (that is why he was in Sanford with his father. (2) Much ado has been made by the liberal media about the weight differential between Martin and Zimmerman. Here's another fact: Martin was 6'3" tall and Zimmerman is 5'9". (3) The Sanford Chief of Police is under intense pressure to resign by the black community and the liberal media because he has told the truth about the incident - for example, that Zimmerman passed a voice stress test administered by detectives, and that Martin had punched Zimmerman in the nose and was on top of him pummelling his head into the concrete. Sharpton and Jackson have their own agenda. It would be a cruel injustice to see this Spanish guy murdered by an angry black mob or imprisoned for defending himself.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Harry

      I meant to add that the Sanford Police Chief is under pressure for saying that black activists like Sharpton and Jackson have their own agenda.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • mane

      Breaking news!!!!Henceforth, all suspensions of blacks from schools in Florida amounts to a death sentence. If you are black and suspended from school, you will be hunted and killed. If you try to defend yourself from anybody you are taller or bigger than, you will be killed. Harry, please take off that hood so you can think clearly. Your ignorance is showing through.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • SicknTired

      Harry,

      Why did Zimmerman get out of his vechle when they told him not to follow the kid? He was trying to play cop and it went all wrong. SO what the kid was suspended from school, what does that have to do with a strange white man following him as he returns from the store only armed with Skittles and Tea? I swear some of you dont have common sense!

      March 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dee

      Harry....so a taller black kid who's suspended from school deserves to be shot to death? You still haven't defended Zimmerman's actions as to why he got out of his car. Did Martin display a non-existent weapon? Zimmerman knew he was in possession of a deadly weapon. Why was he fearing for his life while in his car with a loaded gun? Zimmerman was chasing him and Martin wasn't allowed to defend himself? Zimmerman defended himself, though, and that's OK with you.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. DE

    This country will have racists until the end of time; it is ingrained into parts of the culture, mainly in the South.

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

      Yes you're absolutely right. Many black people in the south are racist as hell, and tend to blame white people for their decision to sit on their porch and smoke weed all day. Drive through any ghetto for evidence of this. Gang violence is glorified by the godawful "music" they listen to, and that is somehow also white peoples fault.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ron Gacula

    What? Did the boy have a dangerous candy that warranted Zimmerman to shoot him? what was he defending against, a lloaded snikers bar?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Richard

    Maybe! HIspanics and blacks! Really don't like each other! That's what they should look at here in a America!
    I am Mexican-American! I think it has alot to do with underline racism, that effects Mexicans, and other hispanic
    groups here in the U.S. We as hispanic American's our waking up to the injustices! That have chained and us
    over the years! We, helped build this country here in the U.S.A.! But, they build a F–KING Wall on the broader!
    An, until they get more facts about this case! Nobody should be making any judgements! Including Black-American's!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jim

    It sounds like every black person in Florida has reason to fear being approached by any white person.

    The law works for everyone.

    Soon, every black person in Florida will arm themselves and when approached by a white person will have react appropriately. It will be legal to shoot because they will be in fear of being killed.

    Be prepared for shootouts in the streets in Florida. Or, maybe I should say more shootouts.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • tendertype

      isn't this Zimmerman guy hispanic? If so, why all the comments about white folks doing wrong here??

      March 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ghandi

      Irt is definatley a sad story but no more sad than this one. I am sure the parents of these two wish they also had their children alive. But because of this person they dont....... http://www.dailymail. co.uk/news/article-2118785/Teenager-gunned-British-tourists-Florida-handing-cash.html

      Close the gap between dot and co

      March 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Myron Tucker

      I was tinkin' the same ting.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • civilinjustice.com

      This case without any second guess' is and has been racially motivated from the start.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ping Pong

    There is no racial here just NEWS. This was an act of confusion by an individual without the proper training on how to act with issues like this one and when to use a firearm.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex_santarelli

      exactly and this confused man needs to be placed under arrest until his court date. He shot an unarmed child that he followed in the middle of the night and then approached. it was his fault and he needs to be prosecuted.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jay

    If the kid had been white, would there be all of this outrage?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Quagmire

      nope. people are too busy trying to make this a race thing when really an innocent kid's life was striped from him. black-white,white-black,white-white,black-black doesn't matter. this is just murder and sad.

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

      No, there wouldn't have. Not in the least. This poor child was killed by an as*hole for a few reasons, but has nothing to do with racism. The boy's mother kept saying it's racism, it's racism, next thing I hear her say on this morning's news is "...it's not about black and white, it's about justice."

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

      I think the question is . . . would he have been shot

      March 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • SicknTired

      If the kid had been white, he would be alive today!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Johnson

    This is totally shameful. Were this a white kid shot by a black man it would be a whole different story. The FBI need to investigate this and charge Zimmerman.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ralph

    It is just sad that what appears to be a fine young man left this world in such an ugly manner. My heart goes out to the parents for their loss. I have a son and I would never wish this on my worst enemy. The parents are brave and humble, thank you for making his loss a stage for change in America.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      What "change" in America? Change in that Florida law, yes, maybe. But what "change" are you talking about?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Feast of Beast

    While this is incredibly bad taste, I should point out that thrown skittles could cause one to lose their footing and slip, and could poke out an eye with sufficient force. Also, the high sugar content is harmful to teeth and could help promote diabetes. Skitlles: taste the danger!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. faboge

    whats even more disturbing, reports are out that they tested his remains for illegal drugs, yet he was the victim! The guy who chased him and gunned him down, is being hidden by the police, never been questioned, his gun is at home, his family intact! If you dont think this is racist, nothing will convince you!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
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