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. bigbiz2

    I'd like to see how long a white would last walkin down a black hood at night...heck even during the day...we know that answer..not long

    March 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chocolate Male

      You go girl

      March 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • fearthebeard

      Thats stupid. I walk through "hoods" every day, at all hours, in West Oakland and San Francisco and am still here. Don't be such a puss. Homeless crackheads and tweakers are far more nerve-wracking, and they come in all shapes and colors.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kayne

    I don't seem to get why the real issue here is twisted with race. I am BLACK living in a predominant white gated community. The real question that needs to be answered is 'Did Zimmerman meet deadly force with deadly force?' This is the main issue. I don't understand why the NAACP just jump to racial conclusions when it comes to situations such as this. Yes, the cops were within justifiable rights not to effect an arrest because they did not have any evidence to effect an arrest. I am a ccw holder in the great state of California. In as much as Zimmerman is wrong for executing deadly force, its not an issue that needs to be subjected to passionate 'race' debate. We are quick to jump and twist the real issues around every single time and at every opportunity. We all profile in some sense..a white guy in a black dominant community suffers the same predicament as a black guy in a predominant white community. Ever since 9/11 we all profile people from the middle east and see them different. It's high time we look beyond color and address the real issues

    March 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JOSE0311USMC

    LOOK ABOVE ON THE CNN PAGE, YOU WILL SEE A WHITE GUY BY THE NAME OF -RANDI KAYE....HE WAS SHOT DEAD BY A BLACK MAN DOING WHAT ZIMMERMAN WAS DOING, NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH... THE SAME SITUATION AS ZIMMERMAN AND MARTIN......RANDY WAS A BIG GUY, TOOK THE BLACK GUY DOWN ..AFTER RANDY STARTED TO WALK AWAY , THE BLACK GUY SHOT HIM DEAD.. .....I DID NOT SEE WHITE PEOPLE GOING CRAZY LIKE BLACK PEOPLE ARE DOING...WHITES ALLOW THE LAW TO HANDLE THE PROBLEM...I DO NOT KNOW IF THE BLACK GUY THAT SHOT RANDY WENT TO JAIL..

    March 22, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Real direct

      You don't want to compare black & white crimes.....do you Chico.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Name*Melody Crumble

    I can't believe all the "white" people on here saying how do we know he was a good boy.... I wonder if it was your child how would u feel.... Be considerate of the parents of this 17 year old boy and I wouldn't care what Zimmerman race is he needs to be locked up and all of you people who are taking up for him are dumb and heartless

    March 22, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Real direct

      You can't believe what whites are saying here......THINK ABOUT IT......what took you so long?

      March 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Real direct

    Race has been a problem in the west from day one......and counting.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kayne

    I never let my kids 1. wander about for nothing, 2 wear hoodies in warm weather 3. advice em to take of caps when they enter a store. ( caps are worn to block direct sun not to cover your face) and 4. don't talk back to a cop ....

    March 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Patience46

    Why is it that when someone other than black people does something of this nature, the black person is always labeled. When someone else does it, its justified, excuses are made and black people are just supposed to suck it up. Why not? Why shouldn't black people suck it up? Black people shouldn't suck it up just like you white people wouldn't. Everyone knows that racism still exists. Everyone knows that this Zimmerman, hunted this boy like an animal (those people) and killed him. If he felt that his life was threatened, then why didn't he remain in his truck? Think about it. Be honest. The boy was running away from him and not towards him. It is racist because of the whole context and Zimmerman's actions. He was told to leave it alone. White people don't want to listen because their racism is aversive racism. You claim or endorse fair and just treatment of all groups, at least in principle but you really don't mean it.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. j.d.

    what is done is done ! so now comes all the freaks to live up to there worth !

    March 22, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. MikeB

    How about this? When you kid goes out for the evening, what ever they wear, make them wear a bright refelective arm band. Maybe even one on each arm.
    It would be difficult to claim someone was up to no good while announcing themselves to the world.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ding Dong

    Listen people: Don't forget this:

    Racial slurs from black people to others: It's just a joke – Otherwise, it's a crime
    All black men are angels, the rest are evils.

    No wonder they never moved upward in this society

    March 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • louise jackson

      apparently you haven't moved upwards either... how dumb!

      March 22, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Odishwade

    It was a senseless murder no matter the color of the victim. This guy Zimmerman was clearly disturbed before any of this. let's pray that justice is served and stop the bickering...

    March 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jothi

    @Mr. Howdydoody First of all, your comment is ignorant. What about Columbine? The OJ Simpson Case? The Jason Young Case? The Jeffrey Dauhmer Case? Were those not all white people or is that just me? Get your facts right, before you start putting blame on "black leaders" , that in itself is a racist comment. SKIN color sadly still plays a terrible part in this society, and that should NEVER be the case. Profiling based on stereotypes is ridiculous and murdering someone based off no indication is also ridiculous. Whether he did it because the kid was black or because he just felt compelled to shoot an innocent 17 year old KID, it is wrong either way. So, please calm down and understand that there are many cases that involved white victims which were publicized greatly.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. john15:12

    It really does not matter what color he was. The point is he killed an innocent person and nothing has been done about it. But you can bet your last dollar if this was Trayvon who shot Zimmerman he would be sitting in jail right now and the cops would probably laugh at him if he even mentioned "self defense"

    March 22, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ricardo

    hispanic is not a race is etnic related to spain in europ , this zimmerman is probable a mix south american or white and black.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ricardo

    anglo is not a race is an etnic too.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40