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. WhiteGuiltisRacism

    Hundreds of black young men are killed every year in America. Why is it when a white finger pulls the trigger, it gets so much attention?

    March 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johan Goetz

      Shooter is a Hispanic male. He even lapsed into Spanish for a second during the call (the supposed "racial" comment that nobody who listens to the audio can figure out what he's saying)

      March 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • sadtosay

      It is not always aparent who pulled the trigger and the steps of investigation when a life is ended aren't generally skipped because someone claims self defense.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Barbara in Harrisburg PA

      Because most if not all of the time, when it's a black shooter....they go to jail immediately when they are standing over the body with a gun.

      White people?? Not so much.

      (and p.s. – I'm white)

      March 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Be real

      Are you for real? Look at the facts. The 911 operator told him not to follow him, then the young man had candy and drink with him (yea a real threat ) And this so call person is an adult? It's clear cut case of someone feeling powerful because he had a gun. If he didn't have a gun he would have done nothing but called the police and that young man might still be alive. So spare me this junk you are saying.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • theinternet

      because its good tv.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • amiwrong

      Because he got out of his. Please go back to SLEEP!!!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Tokyo

      WhiteGuiltIsRacism – Despite your ignorance, you ask a very good question. I think all violence against any race should have equal importance and attention. But you see, there is not time enough for the media to focus on it all (therefore, they stick to the "important" stories – which are largely disproportionate with regards to race). If you were not so ignorant you might be able to discern the importance of the situation, and the important racial dialogue that has sprung forth because of it. But you won't see that, because it makes you uncomfortable if the roles are reversed. Think carefully before you write.

      Oh, and by the way, learn the difference between shame and guilt.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:12 am | Report abuse |
  2. Karl Olsson

    Very Sad, But if the guy is protected by law, case closed. The family and supporters should put all there energy into changing the law. If The shooter is charged because of media then the very injustice that they are fighting will be the very injustice they will hand down....it works both ways...
    Non the less , this life should have never been lost. rIp and my god hold you....

    March 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dan Green

    I've been trying to follow this story. Of course, it's a terrible tragedy. I've seen people in streets screaming racism, but do we know what really happened? It wouldn't seem at all likely that this kid, who lived in the neighborhood and went out for snacks, would be a threat. Zimmerman saw him, questioned him, and then there was some kind of confrontation. That's where the facts get dizzy. If I saw this kid, even if he mouthed off, I don't think I would have even put my hand on my gun at all. But what if he lunged at Zimmerman. Personally, I don't believe that at all, but what happened? Something triggered it. Maybe Zimmerman gave him a shove to get going, and the kid shoved back, and then it got really bad. What else do we know? Even if a kid like that hit me, I wouldn't want to shoot him unless he had a deadly weapon I could see, and I think it will come down to that at trial. It's such a waste.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • David B.

      As soon as zimmerman decided o pursue he cause a situation that was going to lead to a confrontation. He is automatically at fault.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Tokyo

      @ Nick – Hispanic is white and Latino is brown. Latinos and Hispanics are not the same and they will be the first to tell you that. So, looking at Cameron Diaz (considering her father's side, which is from Spain), most people would not know of her heritage to look at her (based on people confusing Latino and Hispanic) were it not for her name. Even now people will just think "Cameron Diaz is white". There is a difference between race and ethnicity that people have yet to grasp. -_-

      March 23, 2012 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  4. Nick

    CNN has a 'dialogue about race' without mentioning the shooter is Hispanic? I don't get it. Leave the whites out of it for once.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Dude for the 500th time, Hispanics are now considered white.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • zelda

      @ nick...it wouldn't be as exciting if they didn't say "white"...stirs more emotion ya know. CNN playing emotional manipulation.....

      March 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • David B.

      Nich, you can be Hispanic and WHite!

      March 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • moonoverpie

      are you kidding me? No where in this article does CNN say ANYTHING about 'white people'

      March 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • philip

      Just because hes hispanic, does not mean he isnt white

      March 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • moonoverpie

      @zelda – read the article. The word 'white' or 'Caucasian' is not used ONCE. Why so defensive? Guess what, racism knows no bounds. Non white people are racist, too.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lin McKay

    No neighborhood needs a gun-toting vigilante patroling their streets. If things are that bad hire a professional. Using Zimmerman as block watch captain gave him a license to kill. Trayvon's life was taken at whim. Justice must prevail. Let a jury decide the fate of Zimmerman.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    Not sure how its self defense when he was stalking an unarmed minor. Looks like the neighborhood watch is a part of the problem in this area..........

    March 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  7. zelda

    "million hoodie march" give me a freekin break....how about doing something really constructive, like raising your children properly.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • BobZemko

      BINGO !!!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • philip

      How about teaching your not to be racist

      March 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Tokyo

      So, zelda, a demonstration in support of a life lost is a waste of time to you? Why did you really bother to comment, especially in such a way that is not an appropriate response to what the story is about? Stay in your insular, racist world. Leave the outside world to the rest of us, okay? You have no place here.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jay

    "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."

    To the author of the article–can you come up with one rational explanation as to what happened, how somebody with Martin's background, who was not high or drunk, with no history of mental disease, might possibly go berserk after stepping in to buy skittles??

    Right now, with that one single sentence, you are demonstrating racism as well.

    Letting this slide means anybody, anywhere can get shot by somebody, and it can wash as long as they can 'explain' they were feeling 'threatened'. Horrifying, all around.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ale

    Sad end to him and his family. Yet, why must it be consider as a racist act? because both the suspect and victim are from different race? would this be the same if they were the same race??? come on people lets give the whole recist thing a break!!! yes, sad tragedy.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Tokyo

      *sigh* >_>

      March 23, 2012 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. OSA6311

    Those of you who think Zimmerman did nothing wrong make us white people look even more ignorant than some of us really are...what happened to this boy is tragic and I sincerely doubt Zimmerman had just cause to shoot the boy. Unfortunately to protect those of us who may actually need to shoot someone to protect ourselves, we've given bigoted idiots like Zimmerman an out – BUT knowing what I was taught in my Concealed Weapons class for Florida, there should be no question...he had to actually be in fear for his life to shoot, legally, and seeing as how the boy was unarmed, I don't understand why Zimmerman hasn't been arrested yet – no weapon against a gun does not equal fear for one's life (at least, not for the one holding the gun!) Good ol' boy mentality going on in Sanford and it's disgusting!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • rell87

      What do what people have to do with it? Zimmerman is hispanic. One minority killing another minority. It looks like murder to me, but racism?

      March 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Tokyo

      @ rell87 – Yes, because we certainly know that racism does not exist BETWEEN minorities. Thank goodness. I'm signing in relief over here.

      March 23, 2012 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
  11. Arby/k/

    It's interesting, the difference between a black person and a white looking person who used the same law as a defense of their actions. Zimmerman is free, and probably in hiding, while Duely is getting the back-hand of the la,w and even though neither of them are protected under the law THE LAW IS NOT THE PROBLEM.

    I could go on about how restricting guns doesn't bring down crime rates and all that nonsense, but I can point you to about sixty minutes worth of reasons that the stand your ground law should be kept: search "Hood Life Volume 3 Full Movie" without quotes. You don't need to watch the whole thing, just a few minutes.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Lost Angel

    For those who spoke and for those who are speaking about this callous lost, God bless you.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. rell87

    It is absolutely disgusting that CNN and other liberal media outlets would take advantage of a kids death to push a political agenda. It is obvious that the stand your ground law has nothing to do with this case. Liberal talking heads are exploiting this kids death to propmote their anti-gun, anti self defense agenda. One minority shoots and kills another minority and CNN manages to find a way to blame white conservatives and 2nd ammendment supporters.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. kay

    MARIA, sweetheart first off it was a black guy that killed a white person he would have been locked up from day one, so know what you saying before you open your mouth B.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Diest

    Jeb Bush, the ill informed Governor who signed this Bill into Law, should immediately have a press conference and apologize for being so stupid. Otherwise, when he wants to run for President in 2016, this will be his "Willie Horton" moment. Wake up, Jeb, or are you as stupid as George W.?

    March 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • ktown8

      Read the law. The law itself isn't stupid. The problem in this instance was the Latino man that made a bad decision. Stand your ground law means you can lethally defend yourslef without physically being attacked....but the immediate/dire threat of an attack. You're the same person that probably stands up for the burglar that gets shot inside someone's house and supports prosectuing the person defending his property.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • jlundquist

      You need to read and understand the law before you pass judgement. It is a good law in theory and will no more to protect people then allow liberties to be taken. If anyone is stupid around here it is you.

      March 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
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