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. Dott

    We had the same thing happen in our town not long ago. A black man walked on to a basketball court and had words with a white veteran there with his daughter. The black man pulled out a gun shot the veteran while his daughter looked on and was never arrested. The white man was unarmed. they had argued because the black man did not want skate boaders on the lot and the white man spoke up for them. They began to fight and the black man killed him. Even though the black was not arrested white people did not march and people from other states did not come here. There were no charges filed against the black man. What is wrong with this picture? White folks you had better wake up. Different standards for different color of skin?

    March 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spain is in Europe Right?

      Dott, I bet you made that up.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • crying

      Dott, there is a difference between what happened on the baseball field between two adult males and the Martin/Zimmerman case. First of all, Mr. James, an adult male confronted and accosted Mr. Dooley, because he did not like the way Mr. Dooley was asking a young ball player to get off the baseball field. Certainly, Mr. James confronted Mr. Dooley in a threatening manner. And, where did you get the idea that Mr. Martin was pretending to have a gun? You are adding something to the equation that is a figment of your imagination, and the kind of thing that causes people to get hurt, you jump to conclusions!

      March 24, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. vinny

    most whites in this country are scared to death of blacks, they think when the time comes the blacks will side with them....wrong, they will kill you in a minute

    March 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liv

      So that child deserved to die because blacks will kill you in a minute?!?!?! I would like for you to show me where that proof is that blacks will kill you in a minute.

      March 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Althalos

      Wow blacks will kill you in a minute huh..... you need to be put in a asylum.

      March 23, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • crying

      Yes Vinny, just like Blacks are scared to death of Whites, after all it is historical, some white individuals will kill anyone, including their own family members, so, if you are White, you should be afraid of some White individuals also. You are loosing it, Vinny – stay with the program.

      March 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Althalos

    I don't understand how Zimmerman shooting Martin was declared self-defense. According to the 911 tapes Zimmerman was stalking the victim not the other way around. Trayvon did not break into his house or commit any criminal act, yet Zimmermann chose to stalk him and then pursue him after specifically being told not to by the 911 operator meaning that he instigated the whole incident. By any case it seems that Trayvon was trying to defend himself and that Zimmerman probably used the calls as an excuse to kill Trayvon and then say that Trayvon attacked him.

    March 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Althalos

    Quick question what is considered white? If you originally hail from Italy, France, Ireland, or England? Why not just say where you are from ? i.e. Irish American, Italian American. Or how about just plain American no color or race associated with it. But based on reports the man is white/hispanic so but I don't know how being hispanic does not make you racist.

    March 23, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jon

    "Trayvon Martin case sparks dialogue on racial inequality, meaning of justice"

    It says that the black on black murders that take place on a daily basis are less improtant than this case because of the race of the shooter. That really is the wrong dialogue to have. The same outrage and moral discussion should apply to all senseless murders. The media damages the public by choosing to hype up a case soley based on race.

    March 24, 2012 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jasmine

    People miss that the family only wants matter the color it was not right for someone to be killed after disobeying law enforcements instruction to not follow the child.....a lot of times if someone black does committ a crime they are arrested and convicted or at least detained. Even if in some cases they are not guilty. This is not the only case that has made national news.....the Caylee Anthony story was and is still being televised and dicussed. Caylee's case took the forefront while another child her age went missing and there was minimal coverage. Really ask yourself what your issue is and your insecurities

    March 24, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. TTC


    I GUESS OBAMA DOES NOT NEED THE HISPANIC VOTE IN Florida, the nation's largest presidential swing state HUH???

    I bet Romney and the G.O.P. are loving the DIVIDE and Conquer play they have with Blacks and Hispanics because of this race baiting

    – Florida
    – North Carolina
    – Ohio
    – New Mexico
    – Colorado
    – Nevada

    Hispanics are Furious about this Race Baiting

    Its all over Social Media in both Spanish and English

    Obama Just Lost in 2012.......


    March 24, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill1936

    I wonder if the news people and everyone else would be all over this if Zimmerman was black and the boy white. Probably not. Either way it is unfortunate the Zimmerman went on a power thing.

    March 24, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Darryl

    The Kirkwood City Council shooting occurred on February 7, 2008, in Kirkwood, Missouri, United States; a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in St. Louis County. A black gunman went on a shooting rampage at a public meeting in the city hall, leaving six people dead and two others injured. Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton[1] shot one police officer with a revolver across the side street from city hall and took the officer's handgun before entering city hall. Thornton reached council chambers with these two weapons shortly after the meeting began. There, he shot a police officer, the public works director, two council members, the mayor, and a reporter. In total, the gunman killed five and wounded two others. He was then shot and killed by police.

    All victims were white, imagine that . Where was CNN's racist , reporting for that story

    March 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. crying

    I replied to Vinny – my message was that Mr. Obama did not create Mr. Zimmerman – and I asked what was it that Mr. Obama said that fueled a racial divide between Hispanics and African Americans. I also stated that Hispanics have the right to vote for whomever they please.I asked Vinny to explain what Mr.. Obama had said that riled Hispanics – I also asked whether Mr. Zimmerman represented all Hispanics, and whether Hispanics expected special considerations for Mr. Zimmerman because he is Hispanic. In other words, I am confused as to where, and how, racial baiting became an issue in this case? I know that Mr. Newt Gingrich made some callous remark to that effect, but that was Mr. Gingrich's thoughts, not Mr. Obama's. However, my reply to Vinny was deleted by the system – oops! Truth is a hurtful thing, when you are race baiting, and as usual, you talk that talk, but when confronted and asked to explain your position, you disappear from view.
    The Martin/Zimmerman case is not about race, it is about the killing of an unarmed teenager who was fleeing for his safety from an adult male who was twice Mr. Martin's size. If the Hispanic social media is opposed to this and to Mr. Obama's condolences to the Martin family, that's life.

    March 24, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. johnny h.

    To crying, shut up, you make no sense at all....

    March 25, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • crying

      Johnny, what are you referring to? Individuals do not have to make sense to voice an opinion, you have just proven that. So, I will not shut up, so what are you going to do, shoot me?

      March 27, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  12. zitherhuxley

    Why hasn't CNN done an article about the guy who witnessed the event? The witness didn't know who was who, he only distinguished each person by the color of their sweaters. That removes the idea that he was somehow racially biased. He said the person with a red top was screaming for help and was being beaten up by a person with a black top. Maybe this wasn't a racially motivated crime. Perhaps Zimmerman actually was afraid for his life.

    March 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • crying

      Generally, people who are afraid for their lives do not chase other individuals, especially those with whom you have not had any previous contact. I believe if you are afraid of someone you try to get away from them, not chase them unless you have a gun pointed at them while chasing them. So at what point did Mr. Martin confront and attack Mr. Zimmerman? I have heard several accounts, 1). Mr. Zimmerman was chasing Mr. Martin and failed to retreat when law enforcement requested that he retreat; 2) that he was sitting in his truck when Mr. Martin attacked him, it's unclear.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
    • zitherhuxley

      yes there are several accounts which need to be taken into consideration before passing judgment on a person. That means, people shouldn't say Zimmerman is guilty based on what they see on the news. All news channels are deceptive and have their own private agenda.

      March 27, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ivnprt

    His first photos on CNN came out white. But as each day progresses they get darker so it's inconclusive what he is at
    this time. Had the police fully investigated this case and taken blood samples we would know for sure if he is white or some other race

    March 26, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. E Lincoln

    I am at a loss to understand how the Florida "stand your ground" law can be invoked in the case of Trayvon Martin. It appears that the clear intent of the "stand your ground" law is to empower those who justifiably anticipate that they may be the victim of someone's aggressive behavior to act in defense of their space without need to retreat from the perceived aggressive behavior – in essence, "stand your ground".
    In the Trayvon Martin case, it is Zimmerman who manifested aggressive behavior. Zimmerman's defensive space was in his truck where police asked him to remain. When Zimmerman left the truck to pursue Trayvon Martin, he became the agressor and gave up his right to envoke the "stand your ground" protection. Zimmerman admits that he pursued Trayvon Martin. Secondly, Zimmerman, upon reaching Trayvon Martin, again admits that he confronted him. Here again, Zimmerman loses the protection of "stand your ground" because he is the aggressor. Only duly authorized law man could both take aggressive action and still have a right to claim any form of self defense, stand your ground or otherwise.

    March 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Sherrybrown

    I feel there is too much missing. the child went out late to get candy, but he hid in shadows. Why didn't he stop and talk to the man instead he ran and hid from him. When your innocent you stop don't hide it creates more fear and doubt, and don't forget the man was the one screaming. The child may have created his own problem which resulted in his death and and when asked what someone looks like you say color weight and how tall. I never heard any racial slurs.

    March 27, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      The child went out at 6:54pm, ummmm thats not late

      March 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • youcantbeserious

      Is it really your position that a 17 year old boy being followed by a stranger in an SUV should just come out and surrender to the stranger? That avoiding and/or hiding "in the shadows" (not sure where you got that from anyway) from a stranger stalking him is what brought on the problem?

      That MIGHT

      March 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
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