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. Irene

    The police and lawmakers are culpable here and I hope they get justice too.

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

    I understand the reason for the outrage, but where is the outrage over the death of the white Florida man by a black man in which the black man pursued the white man and brought a gun to where the white man was and then the white man was shot dead in front of his 8 year old daughter. The black man claims self defense. He brought the gun and flashed it in an argument, then the white man took him down and the white man was shot dead. Where are the walk outs, where is the call of RACISM here. Is it only racism when a black person is the victim? BOTH are wrong no matter what color the victim or the assailant.

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

      agreed. .blacks dont see it that way.. they only see black. Perhaps its time to bring back real justice in the streets.. I will shut down every liquor store in the hood if another white dies at the hands of blacks. period. be ready.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ghandi

    I am sure the parents of these wish they still had their children alive. Where are the protests against this animal? ........... Teenager 'gunned down two lost British tourists in Florida for not handing over cash' after they stumbled drunk into crime-ridden neighborhood


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

    In this case, the color 'white' does not invoke race; rather it invokes his status as more privileged than the black man. The fact that Zimmerman has ethnic roots as a Mexican means nothing. To the extent that he looks white and perceives himself to BE white (in comparison) to the kid, makes his origins irrelevant. Obviously, Zimmerman hated the sight of a black kid in his housing community. Having ethnic roots means nothing. Besides, people of color are just as racist as white Americans anyway.

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

      I thought his Hispanic roots were Peruvian?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Majesty Rene'

    And to ALL you ignorant fools: What DAMN difference does it make whick picture is used. He was still ONLY 17 years old and UNARMED ! As far as you hillbillies, does he need a pass to walk down the street ? This is Florida, NOT South Africa ! White folks will ALWAYS look for excuses and reasons for azzholes like Zimmerman ( who actually thinks by murdering this child of God he's "IN" with white folks) He'll find out when they arrest his fat mexican azz that he's just one shade lighter than a black man.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • mslman

      It must be tough living inside your head. That's about the most convoluted reasoning back to "black oppression" I've ever heard.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wade The Blade

      Why does everything have to be about race? It certainly doesnt help us advance toward of goal of racial equality! It only polorizes the different races. This is a case of a teen who's life was it needs to be revealed as to whether or not is was taken uneccesarily, or without cause......or in self defense. Without the facts, to which none of us are yet privy.........speculation is all any of us are capable be grateful our justice system operates on a higher level. All these HANG EM HIGH, jump to conclusions posters have me in shock...........It seems in thier eyes there is no need for a trial. Just string em up!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. frank white

    All you black folks in Florida come emigrate to Canada, this may sound odd to Americans but we wont kill you for being outside at night.

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

    My heart goes out to this family. it's a shame in this time we're still dealing with this stuff. So many people of ALL colors are being so MEAN to each other.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    Eyewitnesses say it was not Zimmerman, but Martin yelling for help. This vigilante was harassing a child that was merely on his way home. If you had some nut following you around in a car, wouldn't you get a little defensive? Zimmerman could easily have slipped onto the grass from recoil or anything. I suppose the victim's hands are being examined for trauma. We'll see what the coroner says. The cop wanna-be may have even hurt his own nose from recoil or from a more nefarious after-the-kill self-inflicted wound.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. common sense

    WHITE PEOPLE ARE PRIVLEDGED? Tell that to the thousands of white kids living in trailer parks with meth addicted parents. Being black does not exclude you from being ignorrant KEVIIN.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Are you kidding?

      Common sense has no standing in this forum.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • girlygirl45

      True. I grew up in a trailer park with a bi-polar mama. I am as white as can be. I had absolutely NO privilege. I began working at 15 to help pay the light bill and buy my own school clothes.

      March 22, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |

    was excessive force used? i think so, but how can anyone say for sure what truly went down. also the fact that black people are using the race card once again shows that its still here, maybe if black people could grow up and move away from urban/hip hop culture racism wouldn't be so prevaliant

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

      What about the blacks who are responsible parents and pay taxes. should they also abandon hip hop. go some where racist

      March 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Roger Ogilvy Thornhill

    As for race, I don't really care what color the victim was. I wish Zimmerman had felt the same. Trayvon Martin might still be alive if he had.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Glen

    Just change the name of the law to whack a black. I would bet there has never been a black person who has got off on that stand your ground law.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Are you kidding?

      This really isn't a racial issue as no racist slur or other evidence of racism has yet been put forth. Even Jeffrey Toobin himself (yes, a CNN legal advisor!) says this case is about the Stand Your Ground clause and not about racism. But, why would CNN want to tame the fire when they are getting so much buzz from it?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. FEDUP

    black peolple are just too dumb to read the whole story.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      Why don't you learn to spell before you start calling black people dumb?

      March 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patience46

      Black people are really dumb? When you stand in a person of color's shoes in this world, I doubt that you would have typed that. That wasn't a very smart response from you. The truth is, black people are not dumb, just FED UP!

      March 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. joey

    This whole travesty should not be happening in this day and age. I cannot see anyway Mr. Zimmerman was justfied in doing what he did – why didn't he just stay in his car and wait for the police? Why did he leave his car and its safety if he felt threatened, or why didn't he just drive away?. However, folks – remember who elects the people who make the laws – YOU DO! Something must be done about the laws and the lawmakers to try and prevent such widespread and misplaced interpretation of the laws as they are written. Please try to make something positive for the future, hard as it apperars, come out of all this sadness and not just demand a scapegoat, guilty or not. It is not up to us to judge at this point, however guilty he appears. Those mischeivious eyes and bright smile of Trayvon's make me want to laugh and give him a big hug, but all that can be done now is not to spoil who he was. To the Martin family – I'm so sorry that our society has failed you so and I keep you and Trayvon in my prayers.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Gina

    It is amazing that we are being told to stop using the race card. Black people are always crying foul. I would like to extend an invitation for you to step into the other side and feel, see and taste what it is like to be a black person. And everyone is right, if the young man had been white and he was shot by a black man nobody would say it was racially motivated BECAUSE........he would have been put under the jail for this! And black people WOULD be the first to say he was wrong for what he did. Zimmerman was told not to follow the young man and he did. Also, this man has a history of doing this. He should have been immediately arrested and investigated. I don't care what color a person is.......WRONG IS WRONG!!!! Yes the young man was targeted because he was black. I truly believe that – no question in my mind. However, the act in itself was wrong on so many levels that I just can't believe it happened. I am praying that this nation finally stand TOGETHER in combating such acts and employ equal justice for all. My prayers to his family.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
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