Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago’

In unscheduled and unusually personal remarks, President Barack Obama tried Friday to explain why African-Americans were upset about last week’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin while lowering expectations for federal charges in the case.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama told White House reporters in a surprise appearance at the daily briefing.

A Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman last Saturday in Martin’s February 26, 2012, shooting death, inciting anger among many who considered the incident racially motivated murder.

Obama issued a written statement on Sunday, noting that the jury had spoken and urging calm and reflection.

Speaking Friday without a teleprompter, Obama noted a history of racial disparity in law as well as more nuanced social prejudice that contribute to “a lot of pain” in the African American community over the verdict.

“There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me,” the president said.

“There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator,” he continued.

“There are very few African-Americans who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often,” he said.

Saying he didn’t intend to exaggerate those experiences, Obama added that they “inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”

“The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws,” he said. “And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

African-Americans feel the context of the Martin killing is little known or denied, “and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” Obama said.

These cases usually matter for states

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President Barack Obama

At the same time, Obama responded to calls by civil rights groups for federal hate crimes charges to be filed against Zimmerman by saying the Florida legal process had reached a verdict.

“Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works,” the president said, later adding that while Attorney General Eric Holder was looking further at the case, those calling for federal charges must “have some clear expectations here.”

In America, law enforcement and the criminal code are “traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal level,” he said.

On Saturday, “Justice for Trayvon” vigils are scheduled outside federal buildings across the country by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Sharpton called Obama’s remarks Friday “significant and much needed,” saying in a statement that the president “set a tone for both direct action and needed dialogue.”

Obama said demonstrations and other responses to the Zimmerman verdict must be non-violent or they will dishonor what happened to Martin and his family.

He outlined possible future steps, calling for the Justice Department, state governors and city mayors to work with law enforcement agencies “about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”

For example, he noted that racial profiling legislation he pushed as a state senator in Illinois helped police departments think about the issue and act more professionally, which helped build trust with communities they serve.

Stand your ground laws

Obama also called for reconsideration of “stand your ground” self-defense laws in Florida and other states, that he said “may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.”

Sharpton and other civil rights leaders call for abolishing the “stand your ground” laws.

“If we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms, even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” Obama asked.

To supporters of such laws, Obama said they should consider if the right to fight back with a gun would have applied to Martin.

“Do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” the president said. “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

While rejecting any “grand new federal program,” Obama also called for providing more support for African-American boys and young mans who disproportionately end up in prison or homicide victims.

No national conversation

However, he rejected calls for him to launch a national conversation on race, saying “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations.”

His comment could have been a slap at his own response to the 2009 arrest of African-American university professor Henry Louis Gates by a white police officer responding to a report of a possible burglary at his Boston-area home.

After coming under criticism for saying police acted stupidly, Obama later invited the Harvard professor and the arresting officer for a beer at the White House.

On Friday, Obama instead endorsed “soul-searching” discussions in homes, churches and workplaces where people might be more honest about whether they were “wringing as much bias” out of themselves as possible.

“As difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better,” the president concluded, making a reference to his daughters’ generation.

“It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated,” he said. “But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”

TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

ainst Zimmerman, Obama said they must “have some clear expectations here.”

He stressed that law enforcement and the criminal code “is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal level.”

TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

15 comments

  • USA

    And I could have been "Nicole Simpson", so what are you saying? The jury has spoken whether you like the decision or not, stop whining and get on with a real solution that will stop all the senseless murders from happening, period!!!!

  • Ismael

    It always happens the famous race card. Can do well in a test, well it is racist, don't get promoted , well it is racist, get stopped by police , well They are racist. When You cannot stand on your own two feet pull out the race card. When there is no education, no jobs, no pride pull out the race card it always seems to work. You will get handouts from Us the hard working people of America. I voted for this idiot in the first election but no the second. I knew better.

  • Keisha

    You people are crazy!!!!! He is the president he can say what he want to say. When he want to, you don't have to like it but you do have to deal with it. And one of y'all "Nicole Simpson" so with that being said you should be on of the people fighting to change the law. I'm black and OJ kill that women and her friend. They should of put him under the jail. Casey Anthony she killed her baby with no doubt in my mind. Why is she walking the streets. No one know how it is to have dark skin. Speaking for myself I work with all with people. Taking care of them. I have never in my life got accuse of so much. But I keep a smile on my face I get watch like a hawk. I laugh cause its funny how people would mistreat you cause of your color. Never was lock up talk to by police or nothing. So why would I start to do these thing once I started working for them.

  • Tie

    I really don't think as a US PRESIDENT his views should be presented. It will only add wood to a fire that could turn into an inferno. The decision was made by a jury just like the decision was made by a jury on the OJ SIMPSON CASE! What's done is done.

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