President Obama expanded on the acquittal of George Zimmerman at a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room today, noting that he once said he could have had a son like Trayvon Martin but now revising that to “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
“I want to make sure that once again I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin,” Obama said in the halting, teleprompter-less statement, where he lauded Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin for the “incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation.”
Lawyer Obama said he wouldn’t discuss arguments about the legal side of the case: “I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues,” he said, stressing that the legal process worked in a “professional manner” as it should. “In a case such as this, reasonable doubt is relevant,” he added. “…Once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.”
The president said it was critical to keep in mind “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store — that includes me,” Obama said, adding the examples of hearing car doors lock when you walk onto a block or seeing a woman “clutch her purse nervously and holding her breath” when a black man gets in an elevator.
This affects, he said, “how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
“There is a history racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case,” the president continued. “This isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact.”
“The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuses given, ‘Well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent,’ using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”
“Statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else,” Obama acknowledged. “Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys; they get frustrated if they feel that there’s no context for it.”
If Trayvon was a white teen, he said, “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
Obama called protests and vigils in the wake of the verdict “understandable.”
“If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family,” he said.
The president said he was “bouncing around” some ideas with his staff, but hadn’t concocted some sort of “five-point plan” to address the trial aftermath.
He warned that the attorney general’s review of the case in a civil-rights capacity at the Justice Department may not yield the charges some seek. “I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here,” he said. “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government.”
“That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.”
Obama suggested more law enforcement training “to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists” and studying laws that could be “designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.”
He stressed that Stand Your Ground was not invoked as a defense in the Zimmerman case. “On the other hand, 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?”
“I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And 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?” Obama continued. “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.”
He also suggested convening panels composed of clergy, celebrities, and athletes to help kids who are “getting a lot of negative reinforcement” to “give them the sense that their country cares about them.”
Obama even took a dig at his own beer summit in calling for “soul searching” as the nation tries to have a conversation on race.
“I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations,” he said.
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” Obama said, noting his daughters’ interactions with their friends. “They’re better than we are, they’re better than we were on these issues.”
“We should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
Obama left the podium without taking questions.