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. Jerry

    If you doubt that race is an issue in this country, simply read the post listed here and you will quickly see that this country is packed with racial hate. So much so that most people on this post are arguing about racism and completely ignoring the fact that a kid, who was trying to flee and was unarmed, was shot and killed. Pathetic and sad with no end in sight.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. andy

    I thought if we all elected Obama this racial stuff was supposed to go away. What happened to "hope and change". Wow. So much for that lie. Why even bother voting for him again then if we are still going to have the same old mess?

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex_santarelli

      are you serious. how would electing a black man stop others from being racist? this hispanic or latino whatever is politically correct, shot dead an unarmed child who was walking home. he had no reason to get out of his car and shoot him. ok maybe he felt the boy did not belong there....why??? and he followed this child in the dark to see where he was headed. ok fine but why get out of the car?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    the Florida Stand your ground law is good and needs to stay put.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. SallyinChicago

    Looking at the videos, it seems that law has no racial boundaries. Everybody in Florida is armed and ready to shoot.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Billcb

    This nonsense about blackmaleness is beyond belief. How many blacks are murdered in cold blood by other blacks? Do blacks teach their young to fear other blacks? They should. Way more are killed by other blacks than by a non-black. Although it happens every day throughout American there is no outrage, no million hoody march, no change.org polls. You want to be taken seriously? THEN COME DOWN ON THE BLACK PEOPLE LIKE YOU COME DOWN ON WHITES, HISPANICS, ORIENTALS, JEWS, ETC!. Its a farce and no one is going to buy into this ridiculous false concern. The blacks could give a crap about this poor kid. They just want another reason to try and convince the world how unjust life is. Pity me world. Their real goal is hopefully someone will give them something out of the tragedy. Go away people, you have no credibility and I will not take you seriously until you truly care about your own people and stop slaughtering each other. BTW, Zimmerman did not walk up a just blow this kid away. Its likely the boy challenged him and he panicked then overreacted. Let the police do their jobs, its likely he will get arrested, but not for murder.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mary

    I am still appalled by the fact that this George Zimmerman has not been arrested! The court can decide whether he is guilty or not! I mean this is a country that gets DSK out of a plane and puts him jail and yet is not willing to jail this thing that calls itself a human!

    March 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dc4sense

    Does the florida law mean that I can wander anywhere I want, threaten people, and then kill them in self defense when I get threatened? The truth is that zimmerman was in his car. He was told by police that they did not want him to follow. He left his car with a gun and instigated whatever altercation that ensued with an unarmed citizen. He has comitted manslaughter at the least. He need to be arrested.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bottom line

    Who cares what color the individuals were, I don't. One person shot another person. Was it justified, if not, punish the shooter.................

    March 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ukonne.

    Please,may my voice be heard..my heart and feelings goes to the family of T.Martin..am supporting you in my thoughts.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobbie

      You look on here and you see people talking about white people, saying why did a white guy do this. George Zimmerman is hispanic. Yo Hey again George Zimmerman is HISPANIC not white. Now talk about targeting a race, what about all of you targeting the white people? That's racism !!!! Where's my attorney I want to press changes, racial profiling someone needs to get this handled. I need a list of names so I can file the charges.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philly, PA

      I join you, on behalf of my family, in expressing our grief and sincere condolences to the Martin family for thios horrific loss os a fine young man. I have shed many tears over this, and my heart is so heavy with the weight of this tragedy. As the mother of three I canot find the words to express enough that we must all come together to raise and protect our children - whether they are white (like min), or black, or hispanic, or any other race/ethnicity. Our children are beautiful and our future, and never, never, never should they be disadvantaged by indifference and harmed by violence. Please America, let's honor this young man and his family by coming together for the children! Just a Mom

      March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philly, PA

      I join you, on behalf of my family, in expressing our grief and sincere condolences to the Martin family for this horrific loss of a fine young man. I have shed many tears over this, and my heart is so heavy with the weight of this tragedy. As the mother of three I canot find the words to express enough that we must all come together to raise and protect our children - whether they are white (like mine), or black, or hispanic, or any other race/ethnicity. Our children are beautiful and our future, and never, never, never should they be disadvantaged by indifference and harmed by violence. Please America, let's honor this young man and his family by coming together for the children! Just a Mom

      March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kayl

    Okay, I believe in the right to arm oneself, and I believe in the right to protect your home and life. I do not believe that that right extends to going out of your way to provoke a confrontation and then claim the protection of "stand your ground." Both of the these cases are wrong. In one, a man crosses over to a playground with a weapon to confront another person, and then, after shooting him, states he felt in fear of his life, in the daylight, in front of a child. Please! The other, the neighborhood watch person purposefully confronted a young man, in the dark, who was not in the midst of committing a crime. Nothing negative would have occured had that watcher just waited for the police to arrive. Both of these incidents can be termed horrible mistakes and errors in judgements, but both also were easily preventable. In both cases, the confrontation that ensued was one that was actively caused by the shooter. Had either shooter just "stood thier ground" rather than "pushed the issue" niether case would have made CNN. It does not matter the races involved. What matters is that we so distrust our fellow human beings that we bring weapons to playgrounds and regard every young person as a threat. (I really wonder if the watcher would have been the same with a white boy with a hoodie...especially if he had had his pants hanging down....sterotypes). Poor prognosis for us overall.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron Harding

      A very good perspective of the "Stand Your Ground" law and the possibilities for its abuse. Perhaps the law itself should be "revisited" in the Florida legislature and revised with limitations.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. JS

    The Gunman Is a Jew??

    March 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MRS.G

    DEE,
    I would like for u to look up the case of Yalanda Parrish in Jeffersonville,In...And let us know what u think.
    SHE'S BLACK AND HE WAS A WHITE MAN...

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jason

    Big shock Black person gets killed and immediately its racial. If the person was white it would be a tragedy. people have to stop looking at color of skin as an excuse. This innocent BOY was kwrongfully killed. The killer should be punished. The punishment should be murder of a PERSON. not murder of a black kid. Its so hard to teach my children all races are equal when black people keep throwing down the race card when something happens. You want to be treated like equals then stop constantly reminding everyone of your differences. RIP Trayvon Martin.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      Well said!

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

      You relize the gunman was hispanic, right?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carlos Mosley

      Damn Jason, race had to be bought into it because the police were not going to do anything. We want racisium to end but we can't pretend it doesn't exist. The man kills a kid, keeps his gun and goes home, and the boy is drug tested. Now you tell me race didn't have to come up, You need to walk a mile being black, like the student in the fat suit you will see it is very different. I admire that you don't teach your kids hate, but they should not see the whole world in rose colored glasses, or they will say mother didn't tell me about this, its a lot of hate and stupidity in this world prepare them for that.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      Jason, race is unavoidable. History makes this evasion extremely difficult and the media has always made it virtually impossible. It's ashamed that some people deny race and hold on to this idea that we could all be "color blind." It doesn't take a genius to point out that this concept is far-fetched. History runs too deep for many to forget such biases, prejudices, and racially charged events. However, anyone having a relationship with Christ can see this current event is wrong; period. For those who have chosen other walks of life; anyone having a conscience can see this event is wrong. Call it lack of trust, skepticism, prejudice, whatever gives you peace, at the end of the day I find it hard to envision Zimmerman calling the police on a white teen carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, and then subsequently ending that white teenager's life. As controversial as he is, Kanye is right... "Racism is still alive, THEY just be concealing it."

      March 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mukk Rakker

    "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"

    The TRUTH is, we do: Zimmerman was SPECIFICALLY told NOT to follow the kid – he followed him, got into an argument and killed him – if he was a responsible Neighborhood Watch Captian he would have followed explicitly the police instructions – the kid may well have been subsequently arrested (after all he was black) but at least he wouldn't be slaughtered in the street.

    Switch the races, let me know how much protest there would have been then, and lets not even bother pretending what would have happened if Trayvon was white: every vigilante in Florida would have been out on the streets upholding their right to self protection...

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • TJ

      If the races were reversed, it would have made the local news for one night and one night only. It NEVER would have been made a national story. Nor would their races be implicitly reported. You'd be able to see their races but the question of race would NEVER come into play by the media. There have been several shootings by black thugs here in DC of young white men in the last year for no apparent reason other than robbery. The races are NEVER mentioned. And I know you didn't hear about where you live because the stories barely make the local news.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. panax

    Ship ther illigal asses back to wer they came from hispanics,spnish, latino wat ever they wana call them self.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      you do realize that means everyone except Native Americans don't you?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • leslieiee

      And you, "panax." You are obviously an immigrant and illegal, since you don't know the English language, grammar or spelling. You get shipped back to whatever rock you crawled out from under.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clarissa Garza

      Seriously? How ignorant can you be... I'm assuming your white, and you seriously think you "came from here"? Try again you racist, how about we ship you back to your families original birthplace?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
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