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. jumana

    Zimmerman is known to be nuisance caller, just looking for a situation for him to act. 2011, he reportedly made 40 something calls to 911.

    police failed to question him, and run a sobriety exam.

    Have you heard the audio of Trayvon yelling for help? It is hurtful, and very disturbing. George Zimmerman, a 200 something pound man claiming "self defense"?? Cmon, you're kidding!! Trayvon was 17 and weighed half his size, and not to mention was unarmed.

    Zimmerman deserves the death penalty. Trayvons life was but too short, its a tragedy. && This is is news. This is important news!

    March 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • MikeyD

      Jumana, I don't see how anyone who heard the despair in that boy's cries for help could defend Zimmerman. I think you and I both know what the score is there though.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      Of course he makes a lot of calls to 911. They've already said he's a member of a neighborhood watch organization. That's what they're supposed to do: report criminal activity to the police.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. palintwit

    It's a safe bet the shooter had Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster tacked on his bedroom wall. It's also a safe bet he purchased his weapon and ammo at a Walmart.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Altomra

      What a goob. Always trying to blame republicans for everything. The shooter was Hispanic, typically Hispanics vote over 80% democrat. This would mean the shooter is more likely a democrat. As if it matters.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. snapnecklife

    So outta curiosity – racism DOESN'T exist between any other races besides white-black? So if a hispanic person uses a racial slur in references to a black kid, it's null and void because they're both minorities? By that logic, a hispanic/black/asian person can use derogatory terms in conjunction with the assault of a person of a different minority group and it's not going to be considered "racially motivated"? Come on, people – it's 2012. Racism isn't dead. Trayvon was racially profiled by a sociopath in possession of a weapon, who had be instructed NOT to pursue Martin.

    Stand Your Ground doesn't apply if the perpetrator is following the victim, right? It's a flawed law and the gun-toting, minority hating Floridians back it because SOME, not all, still live in a separationist mindset. The fact that Sanford PD isn't pursuing charges or pressing a grand jury to indict with all of the evidence that's already been exposed shows that, presumably, a majority of those on the force has a similar mindset.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • kandy321

      It's not racism when a minority makes racial slurs to another minority or white person. Therefore no hate crime has been committed. If you want proof, notice the silence from Eric Holder.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      2nd paragraph is silly. come on

      March 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mis

    Racial profiling? I thought this was a white man until I seen the picture just now.

    FLORIDA's LAWS are out of wack.
    Two words:


    Something is seriously wrong with our judicial system............
    This man needs to be held responsible for his actions.

    Even in my state- Involuntary manslaughter includes a punishment and time.

    This man had no business shooting a gun on this young man or anyone else.
    Why was he carrying a gun?
    IF there was a problem he should have contacted the Police to address this young man.

    What a shame.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • ftroy01

      yOU MAKE ME SICK!!! Go back to your cave!! keep Casey Anthony out of this this has nothing to do whatsoever with that moron!!! I love Casey and want to have babies with her so keep her out of this!!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. kandy321

    While we're on racism, when is the next CNN "Black In America"?

    March 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. dcmdnj


    You must also hate yourself. We are all descendants of Africa on way or another but given your ignorant comment, I woudn't expect you to be educated enough to know that.

    March 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • patrick

      Shame me...guess what? I don't care...

      March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • dcmdnj

      And YES, i left the l off. I couldnt type fast enough to respond to the ignorance.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. philip

    America's legal system is a joke. If only whites could go through the same kind of racial injustice blacks go through ALL the time

    March 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. BigDeek

    Idiot guns down an innocent kid and the cops and media try to blame it on a self-defense law. Easy to see what is going on here

    March 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. David

    I think this Florida “stand your ground” law is being used as an excuse by the local police to do only a cursory investigation. This laws seems totally unnecessary as I believe almost all American states recognize a right to self-defense and deadly force when a person reasonably fears imminent peril or serious bodily harm. The Florida law extends this principle so far that it appears to excuse murder in almost every situation where there’s a confrontation. Under Florida’s law, any person with a chip on their shoulder can easily contrive a situation where they confront someone, start a physical confrontation and then pull out a deadly weapon to end it. This Florida law seems to preclude any serious investigation into whether the suspect reasonably feared for their life. In this, case Mr. Zimmerman started a confrontation with an innocent, unarmed kid and claims that he needed to defend himself. His claim seems preposterous on its face and this ridiculous Florida law may preclude any serious inquiry into Mr. Zimmerman’s actions. Let’s for a moment assume that Trayvon Martin got upset and angry when confronted by Zimmerman. So what? Mr. Zimmerman is not a law enforcement officer and Trayvon Martin had no duty to identify himself or explain why he was walking through the neighborhood. Trayvon was entirely within his rights to tell Zimmerman to get lost and even if things began to get physical that doesn’t excuse Zimmerman. It’s not reasonable to bring a deadly weapon to a physical confrontation that you start to begin with. How many physically able, mature men seriously need to bring a gun to a fist fight with a 17 year old, unarmed young man? If Mr. Zimmerman had that much fear inside of himself, he never should have purchased a gun to begin with because he’s a paranoid deadly accident waiting to happen.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      When you start with "I believe...." it shows you dont know what you are talking about. Without this law the person firing the weapon in self defense usually is convicted of shooting someone regardless of the situation. That is why this law was passed. To protect the rights of self defense. But this DOES NOT apply in this case. Zimmerman is an idiot and the cops are covering their buts.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mike

    This case has not been proven to be about race. It's about a man who mistakenly shot a kid he thought was up to no good during a confrontation. Putting race into this just complicates the issue. If this wasn't self defense, and it sure seems like it's not, then he should be prosecuted.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      If you're the same Mike as the 2:07pm commentor, you didn't counter my facts so spare us the empty comment about starting a sentence with "I believe". Either the fact is right or wrong, using "I believe" has no impact on that. Further, your opinion that Florida's law doesn't apply is meaningless since the governmental authorities are applying it.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ralph

    Hispanic is not a race, but an ethnicity. you are white Hispanic, white, not of Hispanic origin, black Hispanic origin, or black not Hispanic origin.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lorenzo

      Absolutely! Most don't know this and being black, of Hispanic origin, in a Hispanic state I ask what does it matter? An American youth was senselessly KILLED in Florida. Isn't that GOP territory? That would be another part of the empire of the 1% who perceive this shooting as the 'other' guys problem blowing off as "1 less" I have to worry about!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. GrouchyKat

    Are you saying that you're above the law because you're not white?

    March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Why are kids now days so angry and disrespectful of authority? Are the parents not teaching kids respect anymore?

      March 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. nancy

    For Gods sakes some cop want to be kills a child and you take it to a whole new level of "we as a nation". Stop this crap now !!!Some IDIOT did this not the white population in this nation...give this racism crap a rest .The more people cry racism the less people listen...this was done by a fool with a gun . Why hasn't he been arrested....simple because of the idiotic "STAND YOUR GROUND " law that allows morons like this to LEGALLY harm people with a gun and cry self defense .So blame the Florida legislature not the white population in this country !!!!

    March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • kandy321

      He's Russell Simmons' little B, of course he's going to spout racist tripe against white people.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mac

    It appears that lawyer Crump is the one who has turned this tragedy into a racial issue. From his 1st comments to the media he has professed repeatedly that a black man shooting a white boy would have been arrested immediately. Crump should be investigated by the Forida bar.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Howard

      The truth is considered to be its own defense. I suggest you look up the number of times a black man shot a white youth in Florida and WASN'T arrested. Then you'll have something to back up your statement.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cheryl

    Mr. Zimmerman, we would welcome you and more like you in our neighborhood. I'm sure our crime rate would drop drastically.

    March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • sneekasnocks

      Yeah, until he kills your kid. Great reasoning. Geez.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandy

      Why is it so hard to say that someone has been treated unfairly? I don't believe either of you thinks that having this young man being killed in this way was a good thing. American has become so callous. It's either Cheryl saying more power to 'em or Observerofthehumanconition saying – other people are bad too. Suppose it was your son? Why can't you just show a little sympathy.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Solitaire

      Then it would be more likely that members of your own family would die for walking on the street. Guess you don't like them.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ladypradege

      Cheryl...I bet you wouldnt be saying that if it was your child. It is ignorant folks like you that would only support this racist man!!!

      March 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh The Inhumanity

      so would your population

      March 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • joe

      Agreed. This isn't a race issue. This is a vigilante issue, something which we can use more of these days.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Its 2012 not 1912

      Its funny how the internet has given voice to the ignorant. I GUARANTEE you would not have the balls to say that or anything like that to someone's face. Especially someone of color. I pity you and I feel sorry for you and your way of thiniking. Its people like you that will never allow this country to truly advance forward socially. This is why I will always have my guard up as an African American woman and mother. You will not win! I will pray for you.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Its 2012 not 1912

      @ Cheryl- Its funny how the internet has given voice to the ignorant. I GUARANTEE you would not have the balls to say that or anything like that to someone's face. Especially someone of color. I pity you and I feel sorry for you and your way of thiniking. Its people like you that will never allow this country to truly advance forward socially. This is why I will always have my guard up as an African American woman and mother. You will not win! I will pray for you.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      You are a fool.

      The issue here isn't race, though it may have played a part. The issue is Mr. Zimmerman's flawed belief that he had authority he never possessed. He is a man with a gun who fancied himself as some sort of hero protecting his neighborhood from criminals. He sat in his vehicle night after night, observing and reporting those he felt might be an issue. If that's all he did then that's where this story would end. But as we all know he did much more than observe and report. He took it upon himself to pursue and confront an innocent young man and it resulted in his death. Even if Mr. Martin had never crossed his path this would have happened sooner or later. If George Zimmerman lived in your neighborhood then it would be you or one of your neighbors laying dead in Trayvon's place.

      Let's be clear on the facts: George Zimmerman is not a police officer. He has no authority to stop anyone for any reason. If you or I were walking down the street and he asked us why we were there we would be within our rights under the law to tell him to get lost. If he then chose to stop or impede you in any way he is guilty of unlawful detainment.

      Second: Under Florida's law one is allowed to stand his ground. In other words, a person has the right to defend himself against violence or the threat of violence from an aggressor where ever he may be so long as he is legally allowed to be there. He has no right to pursue a person, provoke them (which would make him the aggressor) and then turn around and claim self defense if attacked.

      In this case George Zimmerman pursued and confronted a person who had done absolutely nothing wrong. He is not a police officer so he had no legal authority to stop this young man. Trayvon Martin was well within his rights to try to flee, and if necessary, attack this person. The law would consider Mr. Zimmerman the aggressor in this situation, meaning Mr. Martin had the legal right to "stand his ground" and defend himself. So what if he attacked Mr. Zimmerman? By law Mr. Zimmerman can't claim self defense because his actions instigated this incident.

      March 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
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