President Obama for the first time publicly spoke about the verdict in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, saying Friday that the uproar in the black community over the acquittal of George Zimmerman is shaped by a “history that doesn’t go away.”
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room. “Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Ever since Zimmerman was cleared of second-degree murder charges, the black community in particular has been clamoring for the president to confront the simmering controversy more directly. Obama’s Justice Department is also weighing whether to bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
Obama did not wade into the issue of federal charges, but struck a rare personal note on his experiences as a black male.
“The African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” the president said. “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store — that includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”
At one point, the president even questioned if the incident would have played out differently were Martin white.
“If a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario … both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” Obama said.
Aside from a brief, e-mailed statement in the wake of the verdict, Obama this week had not broached the topic publicly. Some have called for him to convene a summit on race, much as Bill Clinton did during his presidency, but Obama Friday questioned whether such an approach would be effective.
Like Attorney General Eric Holder, however, Obama criticized “Stand Your Ground” laws, such as Florida’s, which allow people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their neighborhoods.
“If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked.
The president called for a review of such laws, as well as better training for law enforcement officials. Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Weighing in on the verdict itself, Obama reminded Americans that a jury had already spoken, praising the judicial officials involved in one of the more controversial U.S. trials in years.
“In a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant,” he said.
The important question, Obama said, is how the country proceeds.
“If I see any violence,” Obama warned, “I will remind folks that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”