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. jason

    The movement for justice had some integrity until Al "pimp for poverty" Sharpton showed up....

    March 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. look for truth

    Colleges, please put together a study and gather the conscientious of people from all races. Gather their perceptions to outfits and behaviors of people across all races. Show us the results. This is not about race, this is about a perception in general combined with an over zealous gun carrying rent-a-cop. That white guy from global grid.com looks/acts like a thug to me, just because he's white doesn't change my perception.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • look for truth

      I meant to say consensus

      March 22, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. SPENT

    Had this same thing going on during the 60's. Not much has changed.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Wake Up

    Guess what, people. Even if the shooter is Hispanic...it's still racism!!!! If an Asian slurs a Jew, that's racism. If a black guy slurs an Asian, that's racism, too. Whites to not really to be involved to make it racism.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    I hear "punks"..."F@#>€ punks" pretty clearly on that tape they keep playing

    March 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. BDowns12

    Here is the first section of of teh law stating where deadly force is ok.

    776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
    (a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
    (b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

    First, How does a person have an imminent fear of death or severe bodily harm, if they are following the person. Second, through his 911 call, it is not a fear of death or severe bodily harm that has him following Treyvon, it is a numbers of recent burglary's. This law does not give a person the right to follow a person around until an altercation occurs so they can use deadly force.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CA

    Zimmerman didn't stand HIS ground, he RAN INTO THE PATH of Trayvon Martin's ground. Trayvon had a purpose and a place to go. Zimmerman followed him and got out of his vehicle in order to get in the young man's way. There is no evidence that Trayvon approached Zimmerman's vehicle, which is the ONLY way that Mr. Zimmerman could have perceived a threat from Trayvon. The one threatened here was obviously Trayvon and he is not here to claim self defense. Zimmerman was looking to start something with this young man, IMO. Otherwise, he stays in the safety of his car. His car was not near the sidewalk where Trayvon's body was laying, so who was the person that pursued an incident occurring? He got into Trayvon's personal space and threated Trayvon's comfort level. Strange man, big guy, has a gun, coming at me. I run, I kick, I scream. I shouldn't get killed.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Tamm

    What was Zimmerman wearing?

    March 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarmat

      if Zimmerman were unarmed then he would have made it only into police report like a hispanic middle-age man found dead .... It is completely out of my understanding why Martin attacked Zimmerman, what was a reason? could he just talk, ask, resolve any questions that were there without using brute force?

      March 22, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. murray cyprus

    I am a dual citizen - US/CANADIAN Question - Did Zimmerman have a permit to own the gun he used to shoot Trayvon? Question: Did Zimmerman have a permit or licence to carry the gun he used to shoot Trayvon ? Did Zimmerman handle the gun in a manor that compiled to the all rules and regulations set out in the permits or licences issued or any other government rules and regulations? So, if the answer is that Zimmerman - as a neighborhood watch volunteer person complied with all the rules and regulations and did not violate anything then please let me know - I have a dozen buddies at least who are prepared to volunteer and who would like to apply for neighborhood watch positions down in Florida –

    March 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      The answer is yes; he had a license to carry the firearm he used. In fact, it even appears that he was within the law when he over-reacted and took a young man out of this world. I'm pretty sure all of this was in the article you just commented on.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthand facts

      yes to all your questions. you should stay in canada, dont worry when the muslims come for your women, america will protect them since most canadian men are ball-less.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthand facts

      william if the young man was beating the crap out of zimmerman and he feared for his life, then yes he was within the law. which is what zimmerman is saying. however zimmerman mitigated he self defense claim when he followed martin.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Me

    "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."

    THAT is EXACTLY why EVERYBODY needs to step back and take a deep breath and lose the lynch mob mentality. Because so many vital questions remain unanswered pending a Federal investigation, EVERYBODY needs to pause for a time out until those questions are answered satisfactorily. At the same time, however, EVERYBODY needs to keep monitoring for JUSTICE to occur for both the shooter AND his victim. And, if you're of a mind to do so, offer a prayer for both shooter and victim as well.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. truthand facts

    why dont they publish a current photo of martin not one when he was 12. most people think that is how looked when he was killed, hence they think a boy was killed. he was 6'3" and much a young man. zimmerman should not have followed martin. this is not about the stand your ground law. and anyone can claim seff defense, you dont need a stand your ground law for that. and this is not about race. blacks had committed crimes in that neighborhood recently. when will blacks realize that all their reverends make tons of money and keep their power by shouting racism. allow the investigation to be completed and the case to go thru court. justice is slow. this was a tragedy, and now people are using it for their own agenda.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Racial profiling. Justice will provail.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ThankGodImaChristian

    some of these comments are just ignorant, this was a child who was murdered and people are justifying it because people feel it was racist, if this kid was white would you still say it was justified? If Zimmerman who is a grown man would have never approach Martin who is a child, that child would have still been alive. I pray for your souls......

    March 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthand facts

      this a tragedy. martim was 6 feet 3 inches and over 180 lbs. he was not a boy. why dont cnn publish a more current photo.
      this had nothing to do with race. zimmerman is about 5 feet 9 inches. zimmerman should not have followed him.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. beautiful757

    To Dave, the reason the percentage is so low for the white race because those are the only numbers that have been reported. If the justice system would have caught and prosecuted every white person believe me that percentage would be much higher.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JOSE0311USMC

    change the law and the bad guys will have a party,,,the bad guys win if the law is change.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • joep199

      The law needs to be clarified, and this case shows why. How can Zimmerman claim self defense when he followed Martin after being advised not to by the 911 dispatcher? Martin didn't follow Zimmerman, and there never would have been a confrontation if Zimmerman hadn't pushed the issue.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. sureyado

    "wich can be a protected activity under florida law" lol no leading the reader there cnn, real smooth

    March 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
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