Police Chief Steps Down, as Trayvon Martin Petition Builds Steam

Trayvon Martin

Whatever happens during the rest of the year, 2012 will be remembered as the year online activism established itself as a force in redirecting the actions of corporations, nonprofit organizations and—now—local governments. Outrage and disbelief over the shooting death of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 has been channeled into a petition started on Change.org by Martin's parents with the simple title, "Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin." As of March 22, 1.3 million people have signed the petition on Change.org.

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin after he spotted him walking through the gated community of Sanford after Martin had bought iced tea and Skittles at a convenience store, according to the New York Times. Zimmerman called 911 and, after receiving instructions from the 911 dispatcher not to follow Martin, did so anyway and apparently got into a physical altercation with him, which led to Martin's shooting death.

Zimmerman has not been arrested by the Sanford police, and this has been the source of outrage. The Change.org petition has been at the root of Martin's parents' campaign to have their son's killer arrested, and so far it has succeeded in pressuring the Sanford City Commission to vote on March 21 that it had no confidence in the city's police chief. On Thursday, March 22, the police chief "temporarily" removed himself from office, according to The Miami Herald.

An arrest may or may not be forthcoming, but it's clear that the playing field has changed. A year ago a case such as this one might have been buried forever under layers of bureaucracy. Online petitions and social media campaigns have the power to focus energy and translate it into real action. We've seen the repercussions following the outrage over working conditions at Apple supplier Foxconn, Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comments and Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Planned Parenthood funding cuts. Apple, Limbaugh and the Komen leadership were all surprised by the intensity of the online activism.

You can add the Sanford Police Department to that list now.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI