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. nancybrad

    The shooter was Hispanic!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lyn

    Sorry folks. But if hand guns weren't so freely available, this whole incident probably wouldn't have happened (young person killed). The worst would have been the Hispanic fellow beating up and injuring the 17 year old in the hoodie. Unlikely he would have killed him, and much easier to stop the violence when the Hispanic fellow was not wielding a gun. Who wants to approach someone waving a gun? "Law abiding gun owners" my butoootie! I'm tired of hearing this expression.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthand facts

      According to Zimmerman, Martin was beating the crap out of him. And Marin is 6 feet 3 inches and Zimmerman is 5 feet 9 inches. Zimmerman should not have followed Martin and mitigated his claim to self defense when he did so. Hand guns are not "so freely available". What has law abiding gun owners got to do with this?

      March 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. nancybrad

    This is going to turn ugly. get your guns whites, asians and especially hispanics

    March 22, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. judy

    This whole thing is just outrageous. That wingnut cop-wanna-be needs to serve some serious time and when/if he gets out, he needs to have his gun permit jerked. The kid was running an errand...his crime was walking down the sidewalk while being black. I thought that Texas had the corner on ridiculous laws but it looks like Florida is also in the running.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JerseyJeff

    I am confused... The right to stand and defend yourself gives you the right to use deadly force when not faced with deadly force?

    Zimmerman confused the difference between neighborhood WATCH and a vigilante. One see's what happens and calls the police, the other takes law into their own hands.

    A police officer would lose his job for using deadly force against an unarmed person and the County and township would be sued. Why is it legal for a private citizen to take the law into his own hands when we don't give the right to police to use deadly force in any situation close to a fist fight?

    The right to defend has nothing to do with killing a person that was not risking your life. Zimmerman is a vigilante and I bet even in the South that is still illegal.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • truthand facts

      Hey Jeff stay in Jersey. Zimmerman claims he was being beat up by Martin, the police report says Zimmerman's back was wet, he grass on him and he was bleeding from the head and nose. Zimmerman should have not followed Martin. But even in Jersey people have a right to defend themselves, oh wait, that's Jersey. I forgot most guys there are wimps, unless they are ganged up.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Anti-Hate

    this is disgusting....people can be so stereotypical,etc...this young man did not desereve to die...bottom line

    March 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gman

    the saddest part is, that this will be used by every special interest group due to the racial nature, the hundreds of young black men, women. boys and girls who die every day at the hands of young black men will be passed off with a shrug.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. yolonda

    Freaking white people. We all need to deal with them like they deal with us. All white people are racist and so are mexican people.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • RD

      Yet you can condemn all members of two ethnic groups and you are not?

      March 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      March 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Classified

      I am sorry but I take no sides in this matter. As always an African American, Black or what ever one would like to be called or label themselves as. It is always a continue issue being racism towards, once again African American, Black or what ever one would like to be called or label themselves as. Each time one if these incident take place whether black, white, green, blue. Which it does all over the nation, only when it happens to a African American. It is always an issue. I always wonder if the shoes were different, will the same group of people, ( black, white, green, blue, ...), would they take it this far.
      So stop non sense of racism

      March 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Siestasis

      Yolonda – that is a very ignorant comment. You are as bad as those individuals that blacks for all crime. Get a grip girl.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maria G

      You are so wrong, not all white people are racist and neither are all mexicans. I am Mexican and I do not promote or encourage racism in any way. I am sorry you feel that way, but understand why you do. There are alot of people that are not racist!

      March 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • jfjfjf

      Every race is racist!!!! It's natural.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • jason

      All of you black people are looking at this through the lens of color..if it had been a black man who shot poor Martin, you would not even care...hypocrites...

      March 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Brown

      Wow, those whites, I guess I should tell my children if you see a white person run and hide, but what should I tell them if they meet a brother? The story doesn't tell the entire truth, according to the FBI, young blacks kill about 94% of the brothers in the US. Yes whites do murder blacks but to be far, our young brothers kill more whites. I worry about the path this nation is heading.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom

      and Friggin black people are racist too.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • willy-lee

      @Yolanda. I don't have to like black people if I don't want to. I have never owned slaves, but if I could, it sure as he'll wouldn't be a black one.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aintno Gangsta

      Freaking black people want to be all gangsta and buck wild with no rules for themselves. When they commit crimes they don't want anyone to snitch. But when something happens to them look out. Here comes Al Sharp-tongue in his velour track suit underneath his Armani 3 piece. Y'all gangstas cain't have it both ways. Either be law-abiding citizens or elect to pay the price for your animal instincts.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. nancybrad

    No justice no peace!! get your guns non blacks

    March 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. beautiful757

    To all the people that have been posting comments about how black people use the race card for everything or for our personal life line, all of you individuals sound really stupid. Just like the comment was made before 'what if it was your son.' Honestly black people don't like to use the race card but if we're put in that position to use it, we're going to use it. To the idiot that said he doesn't like ghetto people, could you please post a definition for the word ghetto.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @beautiful757: according to newt gingrich, they speak spanish in the ghetto.. it must be mexicans..

      March 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dubious

      True, but claims this case has to do with race are unfounded. That's what has caused the race stir, not "white people" calling "black people" out on the use of the "race card."

      When someone can prove a racist motive for the shooter or the police, then we can have a conversation about race. Until then, people that cry racism and those who defend them, are only muddying the waters.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |

      Gonna have to call B.S. on that one. I have seen plenty of african americans using the race card to get whatever they can when they can.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. tyrone

    The white man always keep us down, divide out people, kill our kids, arrest us just for being black. We dont need justice we need revenge.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      March 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johan Goetz

      homegrown terrorist?

      March 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. dyvon washington

    Me too, I am also tired of the white man killing us just for being black. You dont see them shooting the hispanic people, you dont see them shooting the chinese people and most of all you never see them shooting the white man.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      March 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sara

      Dyvon: the killer in this case was Hispanic, not white. Get your facts straight on this and the other BS you're slinging in your message before you write something. Misinformed people like you are very dangerous, regardless of their race.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • bigbiz2

      Yeah they white folks killin the bla ck boy fo fun.Like duin they St patrick day last wek in my hood south side Chi town 50 bro's was gun downd wit 10 kill small meskin PR only 6rs ol. Damn whit e man

      March 22, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • sureyado

      zimmerman is latino there genius

      March 22, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. pinball907

    LOOK! It doesn't matter why the boy was shot! The rent-a-cop should go to trial and then jail for a long time. Stop flogging your own beliefs and look at the facts.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • sureyado

      well it does matter why and you are a lemming

      March 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steve

    That's the youngest looking 6 foot 3 inch 17 year old I've ever seen.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      March 22, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JerseyJeff

    A good question...

    I've been checking this thread regularly today.. Why does CNN delete the thoughtful comments and leave up the race-based/fact-short bickering up?

    Guess bickering attracts more than intelligent commentary.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dubious

      They delete the thoughtful comments because the trolls are probably using the "Report Abuse" button. There are SO many trolls on this thread, its atrocious.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
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