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. Rex

    Last weekend, 39 people were shot in Chicago. Where is the outrage. I guess black folks only get upset if the shooter is non-black!
    When is Rev. Al Sharpton going to speak out on black on black violence?

    March 22, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ricardo

    zimmerman looks like a south american with indian roots

    March 22, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ohbehave

    Go out in fear???? What? This was a freak, rare tragedy. The #1 most dangerous thing to a young black man is other black men... BY FAR!!!
    Asians and whites are the LEAST of a black man's worries!!! To think otherwise is to be insanely delusional.
    Ask yourself this: How many black men have been shot by a white guy since this story broke three weeks ago. I'm guessing ONE at the hands of a foolish Zimmerman.
    Now, how many black men have died at the hands of black men in the past three weeks. I'm guessing more than 30!!!! (way more)

    March 22, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ricardo

    is obama anglo or afro is mix.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hurry

    Let's go ahead and kill this killer, not trial, no lawyer, no judge ...... you folks are crazy about revenge aren't you? Now you know how others feel when blacks go into an area and kill people.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. bn

    Well, this is a common occurrence in Texas, in particular Houston. The HPD will harass, literally stalk, follow, and attempt to arrest, and beat you for no reason. It happened to a Chinese embassy official, he was beaten by HPD, and it happens to countless other people that are ethnic. In particular, be it because of PTSD, lack of sleep, stress, temper, or steroid/drug use, the police have this thing about partaking in this type of violence. So, this is quite normal, and that's why most people just don't trust cops, and I mean, how can we. I mean, look at what they do, and get away with.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dan

    Zimmerman should be arrested but not just because Trayvon was black. This could have happened to a teenager of any color, it's sad and tragic. This shouldn't be an issue of race here in this day and age.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. hello

    If what so called "American People" were to go back to their Origin Nationality, then 99.9% of the white population will have to go back to their origin place. Their ancestors conquer the land of the "Indian People" as if their own and bring in the "Black People" as their slaves. Why do white people think that they are above everyone? Is it because of their own skin color? Each races is unique in their own way.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. WolfJack

    Right on cue Al Not Sharpton comes to play the role of race baitor. As tragic as this incident is, why do people always play the card. Seriously...what year was civil rights passed? Its like some in any ethnic community(black, asian, hispanic) need a reason to blame their wows on race. Grow up america and quit listening to MSM and fools like Al Not So Sharpton....just race baitor.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dott

      Could not have said it better. Sad that it happened but no one wants to know facts only that a white person killed a black person. That is all that is important. Sharpton needs to make money so his nose is where he can make a few bucks. Another book!!

      March 22, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • zack

      What do you really know about Al Sharpton. Yes he is Loud! But he is the voice that's been speaking out and protecting Young Black Men since the 1980's. How do I know that because he spoke out against Racial Injustice in Undercover Racist New York City. Where The Northern Whites Handle their Racism in terms of Howard Beach and BensonHust. And before you make a rush to judgement. Try and have an open dialogue and conversation about Race, discrimination and equality. Every other minority that cones to the USA is almost handed Economic Power, and its not merely for intellect but for the Colour of their Skin. Take a deep look of privilege and why some Blacks and Hispanic are incarcerated at a higher rate of the Majority of their white male counterparts...the Majority in this country. Blacks may have some political power, but until we have our own equated Economic power we will always be treated as the lowest form of life inn America form people like you. Take a good look at your self in the Mirror. If you can live with that, then I have proved my point. More Whites-Asians, Native Americans, Latino need to stand up and speak out because I know Blacks turn the other cheek and do speak out not only for their own, but for EVERYONE!!!!XX

      March 22, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Al Sharpton didn't come to my defense when I was approached by two policemen (one white, one black) in a black neighborhood as a white man. The assumption was I was there to buy crack, however, because I didn't yell, scream and become confrontational, I was able to calmly explain why I was there as a Christian proselyter. Funny what happens when people act calmly in a situation.

      March 22, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. MissT

    So, then according to the stand your ground law, as a black person, I should be afraid that I'm in imminent danger while walking in the VERY RACIST state of Florida and cap every white person who looks at me in a threatening way???? Doesn't sound quite right to me......

    March 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dott

      No one has heard the other side of the story. What if the white man was threatened? Teach your children to obey authority whether or not it is correct until they can leave the area. The white man felt threatened by the man so the rest is history. Actually has little to do with color of skin when you get right down to it.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      MissT, Im wondering whats going to happen if Zimmerman is not indicted on any charges.

      March 22, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Goya

    Ahhh...trying to tear the New York phone nbook in two all at once. The reason we don't move along is because everything becomes a dialogue on 'racial inequality' whatever that iceburg really means to each individual of all races. So long as we take focussed situations and turn them into global issues we will get no where. As soon as you go global you lose everyone is some way and everyone digs in their heels. If we keep the issue race free and focussed on what actually happened we can get something doen for the good of us all. The question here is should anyone ever be able to track and instigate aggession when no crime has been committed. Should someone be abe to use deadly force even when protecting themselves if the person they are protecting themselves carry no weapon and has done no physical harm? This law needs to be cleaned up and it then needs to be eveny applied and race should not enter into it. We will all be served evenly and we will be closer to racial equality should we do this rather than talk about about that which has no limits or single solution.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. DD

    I'm sorry, but most of the reactions from African American people I've seen in this case are what I consider to be the apex of hypocrisy. People don't freak out, make a giant media circus, claim racism, and have a rally every time a Black (African American) person shoots a White (Caucasian) person, or a Hispanic (Latino) person. Nice set of double standards.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kx420Cygnus

    I do believe that the shooter probably feared minorities and shot Trayvon because he was black. But do fears origninate from nothing, or are they based on our experiences and exposures? Living in the suburbs of a large east coast city, the local news reports are dominated by black crime. Every single day. And the situation only seems to degrade, never improve. So it's not difficult to understand how a person can come to believe that, statistically, the blacks they encounter most likely have criminal backgrounds. And that perception produces what happened in this incident. When black behavior changes the perception will change.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. joeinalabama

    Why is it that Trayvon's Facebook page is gone? Why is it that we don't hear about Zimmerman's injuries? Why is it that the 911 call where Zimmerman said that Trayvon is coming toward him is not talked about. I don't know for sure what happened that night, but I'm reasonable sure that the 1,122 people that have made comments don't either.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jason

    A lot of ignorant comments on here. This is not a race issue. Tackle the issue as it is rather than run around throwing tantrums...People get shot at in Oakland, Stockton and Sacramento all day by gangs. we don't go round claiming racial violence, do we?. NAACP and Al Sharpton should step aside and let the feds do their job. This is the 21st century for crying out loud.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
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