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. darious

    all white people need to pay the price for our opresion.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC

      WHITES?? WHITE PEOPLE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH WHAT HAPPEN, DUH...A BLACK GUY SHOT BY A MEXICAN

      March 22, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. malcom

    I have a dream!!! That one day the white poeple will surve us like they tried to make us surve them.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • jfjfjf

      You can't even spell and you wonder why.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Harold J. Belt

    What kind of training does Zimmerman have...give a man (permit or not) a 9mm and make him a "policeman of the neighborhood...he sees a young African-American walking alone and immediately suspects him, then follows him. Florida needs to take another look at their law...it's giving some paranoid idiot a "007" license to kill! Such a shame that a young life was taken!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC

      BELT---–4 BLACK GUYS ROBBED 4 HOUSES IN THAT NEIGHBORHOOD 4 WEEK'S PRIOR TO THE SHOOTING....IF I WAS ZIMMERMAN AND I SAW A BLACK KID IN A WHITE NEIGHBORHOOD WEARING A BLACK HOODIE ?? I WOULD WANT TO ASK HIM WHAT HE'S DOING .. ZIMMERMAN WAS DOING HIS JOBS AND I'M SURE HE WAS ATTACKED BY MARTIN....ZIMMERMAN FACE WAS BLOODY.

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

      Stop it. Florida's gun laws aren't the problem, its people who disobey the law and become vigilantes. We don't take cars away from the population because some people drive drunk and kill whole families, right? If someone started killing people with hammers, you wouldn't scream, "OMG! We need a hammer permit law!"

      If Zimmerman is guilty, and it sure looks like it, then he'll face the consequences of taking Martin's life. Leave gun politics and race out of it.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. RetardAmericans

    what does this have to do with race? i'm fed up with black people referring to every injustice against a black person as a hate crime. this is ridiculous. the editor and the people who call this a racial issue should go back to school and get a CAT scan along the way. yes, Zimmerman is guilty and he should not have shot the kid but it is in no way related to racial issues. what was trayvon doing? putting his hood on and walking NOT through the front gate but through a separate 'hidden" entrance. suspiscious? I think so. if I were Zimmerman, I'd confront Trayvon but would I shoot? Absolutely not. HOWEVER, the neighborhood has had several break-ins which caused Zimmerman to become zealous and eager to apprehend the criminals and Trayvon isn't helping by putting on a hood, walking through a back entrance and talking on a cell phone at the same time. Zimmerman is GUILTY but is this an issue of RACE?!?!?!? NOO!!!! IDIOTS!!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. beautiful757

    To Jose0311USMC, stupiddddddd if the white man didn't lead the drug operation then the black man wouldn't be able to sell it. I bet it on my life you are a weed head or someone in your circle is a weed head. Stupidddddddd you will never know what it's like to be a black man in America!!!!!!!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jazzy

    Black people kill more black people than any other race. Idiots.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. FactChecker

    The law is designed for people who want to be macho cowboys. Anyone who would rather kill a person than back away is sick and dangerous.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. peopleruinearth

    I wonder why this racial dialogue wasn't sparked 2 weeks ago when the 13 year old white kid from Missouri was doused with gasoline and set on fire by 2 older black kids.If you don't know the story I'm dialing up, don't worry.Most people don't.Any crime committed against a white by a black doesn't even make back page news.Now a white on a black...that is primetime baby.Oh, by the way...the perp wasn't even white, he's latino.That makes CNN 0 for 2 in 3 days.First they try to pass a latino off as white, and then they hoped and prayed the shooter in france was a nazi racist.Oh well, you'll get your white boogeyman at some point CNN.I have faith.Good luck with the agenda, and by the way....does it make you angry that more people watch judge Judy reruns than CNN ? You are aware that your ratings are, shall we say, a little light ?

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

    Hmmm. About two weeks ago, two black kids followed a white kid home in Kansas City, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. That wasn't racially motivated, according to KC cops.

    Just as I thought. Blacks aren't capable of being racist. I'm glad to see that cleared up.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • willy-lee

      You don't have to use a special word or symbol to commit a hate crime. In fact its the stupidest thing I've heard. All crime is committed due to hate and human disregard. So what's the point of giving more time to someone who uses a word or phrase. Ridiculous... what if someone said, Allah- Akbar?

      March 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC

      I'M A HISPANIC GUY......ALL RACES ARE RACISTS ....MEXICANS ARE THE MOST RACISTS OF ALL HISPANICS.....I'M SURE YOU HEARD MEXICANS SAYING WE ARE GOING TO TAKE CALIFORNIA BACK–TEXAS--THEY CALL WHITES ALL KINDS OF RACIAL NAMES...

      March 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • bee

      So to say if this had happened to a white kid by a black wanabee cop the feds would not be involved nor would we hear a thing .. thought so and I have been told there is no reverse discrimination going on .. any where .. the non blacks in this country are paying and will continue to pay for what is considered pay back for crap that happened in the past .. it has gotten ridiculous .. it is terrible that this young man died .. but young men die everyday as a result of hate ... their deaths just do not qualify as hate crimes.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • willy-lee

      @bee,

      Very true. I have never owned slaves, but if I could, it sure as he'll wouldn't be a black one.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • EJ in Metro Houstonj

      according to Zimmerman's father he is not white but Hispanic so he's NOT racist. So I guess Hispanics can't be racist either.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. CC

    "Blackmaleness is a potentially fatal condition" So is teen maleness. So far it doesn't seem clear whether Zimmerman's problem with Martin was race or age. Either way the case needs to be investigated-and IMO Zimmerman should be under arrest while that takes place. (I'd consider house arrest as a possibility, but a self-defense claim should be decided by a jury, not by the individual officer on patrol.) Dress probably didn't help and that's something that I would recommend talking about with your children. Threatening dress (hoodies are threatening although not as bad as the obscene T-shirts I've seen some wearing) exacerbates the problem. OTOH, self-defense because you feel threatened by somebody's clothes? That's ridiculous!

    March 22, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • JPowers

      Arrest him for what exactly?
      You weren't there and with the lack of witnesses no one can say for sure what happened so, Unless you personally will pay for any lawsuit arising from false arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Zimmerman, Please STFU

      March 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chocolate Male

      BlackMaleNess is fatal. Speaking as one, I have 3 baby mamas, I don't work, I leave my family, I don't speak well and my choice of dress gets me all the best jobs out there! Oh, yeah, NOT. So I apply to and receive gov handouts and am third generation. Lovin it.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DaRealist

    you know what's wrong black america? you're trying to get to your place. you find that corprate america isn't enough, you find that your education isn't enough, your community isn't enough, your color isn't enough, but you're still trying to get to your place, but along comes the devil, sending something to take you out, but you still try to keep up the pace, it's time that we grow some wings, and rise above our troubles. show the devil that he is truly beneith us and can never follow us down and take our lives ever again!

    March 22, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John Brown

    dyvon washington: Do some research before posting some of your comments: About 94% of all murders committed by whites are against other whites, just like about 94% of murders committed by blacks are committed against other blacks.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Stop

    Racism does need to stop. But what also needs to stop is celebrities and "artists" (and fans) glorifying a thuggish lifestyle that perpetuates a stereotype that all black males are no-good thugs. It's not fair and not right to judge this way, to see a kid in a hoodie and/or low-riding pants and think they're a thug, but it happens to be the way people want to be perceived (because it's cool). As long as we celebrate thuggery and want to appear thuggish this problem won't disappear.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stop

      And no, I'm not making excuses for this situation. It is inexcusable regardless. If evidence can be brought forth against Zimmerman he should be tried and sentenced to death.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. joe702

    this hoddie march thing is pathetic.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. bigbiz2

    I'd like to see how long a white would last walkin down a black hood at night...heck even during the day...

    March 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
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