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. Frank

    Even if you take race out of this just seems wrong. Let me see if I have this right: In Florida, you can go up to somebody, start fight, and if you are getting your ass kicked (in the fight YOU started), you can pull out a gun and kill him in "self-defense"?

    March 22, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. prinzy010

    He is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Oh wait, he hasn't even been arrested yet.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  3. stevetundra

    Huge disparities in the distribution of wealth between the elite rich and the working class tend to weaken the social fibers of a society. I believe this has been the trend over the last few decades. We need to address this problem above all else. We ALL need to band together against the elitists!!!!!!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dott

    Beg to differ richard. People like you who spout off without knowing the facts would indicate that not all stupid people are in Florida. Obviously we don't know the facts so hold your criticism until you know the facts. If the white guy thought the man had a gun and he was threatened then he did what most of us, even though Stupid, would do is try to protect ourselves. Come on down to the land of the sunshine and join the rest of the stupid people.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. prinzy010

    Why do I read these comments?

    March 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    It's very sad that a child lost his life and my thoughts and prayers are with his family!!! But it's even sadder to see that the media and some public figures have tried and convicted a person without knowing all of the facts. Now the local police may have botched this up and it warrants further investigation by other agencies!! But the real question is if these two individuals were of the opposite race would this be an issue? My guess is that it would not be an issue. I look at everyone as equal in my life and I know all races have idiots, but if we are going to try and convict people with the media and public figures we need to make sure it's fair for all!!!
    I'm tired of the racial / class divisions in our society!!

    March 22, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dott

      Many of us are so tired of the racial problems. Blacks want us to be color blind unless it suits their purpose. Never see my color unless I will benefit from it. We do not know what the white man feared. What if the young man told him he had a gun and taunted him with a bag of kittles telling him it was a gun. He should have been taught to respect authority even if that authority figure was not black. Get over it people – you don't want equality – you want special treatment. Ain't gonna happen.

      March 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Thom

    I pray that cooler heads will prevail and that all parties involved will tone down the inciteful rhetoric and encourage and support the justice system so that a full investigation can be conducted to determine the facts of the case and the appropriate action to be taken. If there was wrongdoing, it will be discovered during the course of the investigation and a decision will be made as to what remedies, if any, should be pursued. I will say this: It does seem that the person who shot the teen should have complied with the 911 operator's instructions not to continue following him closely.I do not know if the person who fired the shots understands that a concealed carry permit does not give anyone police powers. And, the weapon being carried should only be used in self-defense of the person carrying the weapon and/or an immediate family member provided there is no other viable alternative. Not sure if he ever heard this either, but: (1) The best gunfight is the one you avoid, and, (2) Your best weapon is still your brain. Use it first. Any responsible gun owner and concealed carry permit holder knows that having to use a gun in self-defense – having to shoot another human being – is a life-changing experience that we do NOT look forward to. This whole incident is a tragedy for everyone involved BUT more violence is NOT the answer. Please give that some thought – I pray. And God please bring some comfort to the family and friends of the young man who was shot.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. RUINER41

    The level of ignorance in this country has become super-exposed with this case. It's shocking how many people make comments like, "A white Hispanic?" or "How can you be white if you're Hispanic?" Do they not realize race and nationality are two different things!?

    These are the same people that will be shocked when they see a black Hispanic. Or even more shocked when they see a black German. These are the same people so stuck on stereotyping race that racism will never go away.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alan

    What about black on white crimes? There are more of those than white on black folk know what I'm talkin about.

    March 22, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bionca

    i think the boy was the one that was fearful i mean yall at like yall wouldve been cool calm and coolected if someone out the blue just so happens to follow yall of course you are goin to react and run or get away. i think the man should habe been questioned at least because we see in the news how marjority of crimes dealing with blacks get justice served to them right then and there and im not pullin no race caed but its true and been proven i think the guy should have never confronted him i dont care if he was wearin a hoodie or walkin in the rain its a free country he wasnt causing no threat to nobody i do believe they fought and the boy was tryin to get away and then his life was taken at that moment. and nine times out ten yall wouldve fought for yall lives as well so dont give no bs about it my heart is broken because that is a child reguardless of race and no one will ever own up to the fact that racism still exsist and that people actually teach their families not to like different races hate is not an emotion but rather something being learned and that law should be changed because others couldve gotten hurt or killed too and i pray that God heal the broken heart of the boys famliy and friends because if it was your child yall wouldve done the same thing or more too so stop bashing what his family is doing they the ones that lost their child unless you know what its like excuse my french shut the Hell up! its 2012 and its about damn time people stand uo for change and for the smart mouths out there history does nothing but repeat its self so go talk about that!

    March 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. 1_Disgusted_American

    Wow..... we don't even have all the actual FACTS made known in this case but the knee jerking of the race card is instantly brought to bare anytime it's a white on black incident. Where's all this same MSM generated hysteria when the races are reversed??

    This whole story just doesn't sit right and it's comely clear it's an attempt to introduce some yet, stiffer anti-gun laws across the board which will only come back to bite the innocent law abiding CC citizens their just right to protect & defend themselves from the rioting mobs that will no doubt be a reality when the Government checks stop coming.....

    March 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsutton

      You are disgusted for all the wrong reasons. The real reason for being disgusted is that an innocent young boy was killed by a self-appointed gunslinger. Now that's disgusting.

      March 22, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • The realist

      I heard mr. zimmerman was hispanic. if this is true the race issue is not a headline news story anymore.

      March 22, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • 1stSgt-Topkick

      Hmmm... CNN new report:
      "Three white Mississippi men pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes Thursday in connection with the 2011 beating death of an African-American man in Jackson"

      Hmmm... CNN report:
      "Texas death row inmate Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, was executed by lethal execution,,, Brewer and two other white men kidnapped the 49-year-old black man on the night of June 7, 1998. They chained him by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for 3 ½ miles down a country road near Jasper, Texas. Byrd died when he was decapitated after he hit a culvert.

      Yeah, you're right. Black folks are getting a little tired of the "race card" thing. too.

      March 22, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • 1stSgt-Topkick


      BTW, I noticed in the Google photos and YouTube news clips that there were FEW Black folks up in that "rioting mob" seen up in Wisconsin last year at this time against the governor – about 40,000 so the paper says. Seems like most of them were "government" types getting "government" checks for being state employees (including firefighters and police). Is THAT the mob you're planning on defending against? They tell me Wisconsin has never seen anything like that in it's history. Went on for damn-near a month or so.

      And since, most of us Black vets returned to this country after fighting overseas, I guess the 2nd Amendment pretty much covers OUR rights and ability to get CCW's and firearmss. Is that what you think would've solved this if the Black kid had had his own firearm and held the belief of "stand your ground / self defense"?

      March 22, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. JoJo

    Why do they keep putting a picture of the kid when he was 13 yrs old? Just to gain more sympathy from the black community.

    March 22, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. clarke

    This is a very sad state of affairs. None of us know what happened, we only have Zimmerman's account of events. All we know is a young man is dead and the family and friends are heartbroken. So he was wearing a hoodie, my grandson wears them. as a matter of fact most of the kids in his school wear them,. Hoodies have nothing to with what color or race you are, they have nothing to do with being bad or good. This young man should be alive but Zimmerman, stood his ground, he had the gun, The young man had skittles and a hoodie!! disgusting

    March 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JoJo

    Lower the carry permit... age to...???? Let's say inception.

    March 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JoJo

    Maybe Florida should lower the legal age for carry permits to...???? Let's say conception.

    March 22, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
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