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'Trayvon Martin could have been me,' says Obama

"Trayvon Martin could have been me - 35 years ago," President Obama said during surprise remarks Friday from the White House.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013.      (Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me - 35 years ago," President Obama said during surprise remarks Friday from the White House.

Speaking publicly for the first time on the case since the jury returned a not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the nation's first black president discussed the status of young black men in a frank and emotional speech.

"I did want to talk about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling," the president began. "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why in the African-American community at least, there is a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away."

Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges last Saturday. He has said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him in Sanford, Fla., February 26, 2012. The prosecution said that Zimmerman profiled and followed the teen who was returning to the house he was staying in after going to the store to buy snacks.

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed while they were shopping at a department store," Obama said. "That includes me."

"There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often," Obama continued. "I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida, and it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

The president praised the peaceful nature of protests that have happened around the country in the aftermath of the verdict, and said it was time for the whole country to "do some soul-searching," while also calling for that soul-searching to not be tainted by hollow political promises.

"How do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?" he asked. "Is there more that we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?"

Although he noted that "once a jury's spoken, that's how our system works," the president grappled with trying to explain why many in the black community reacted personally to verdict and with calls for further investigation into the death of Martin.

The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given that ‘Well there are these statistics given that show that African-American boys are more violent,’ using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain. I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically someone like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated I think if they feel that there is no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in a same kind of scenario that from top to bottom both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

A number of commentators remarked on the candidness of the country's president speaking on race and in such specific and personal ways.

"For this president to come out and be so full-throated about it…says something about race, says something about this president and the time that we’re in, how important it is to have a black president,” said Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of African-American news site TheGrio, Friday on msnbc.

“My sense is that we’re going to look back on this moment with the president of the United States standing and making the statements he did in a couple of critically important ways,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, host of her eponymous weekend show on msnbc. "Just that recognition of the humanity and the history of black people from the president of the United States is absolutely historic.”

Stand Your Ground laws come into question

After a six-woman jury cleared Zimmerman of all charges, a number of black organizations, including the NAACP, called on the Department of Justice to consider the case under federal hate crime rules.

Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the NAACP's annual meeting in Florida earlier this week and spoke out against the state's Stand Your Ground laws that allows an individual to use deadly force if they fear for their lives. Although Stand Your Ground was not used in the Zimmerman defense, Florida police initially said they could not arrest him because of such state laws.

"It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense,” Holder said. 

Obama, too, on Friday said it was time to "examine some state and local laws," and referenced Stand Your Ground.

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" Obama said. "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?"

Trayvon Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, released a statement saying they were "deeply honored and moved that President Obama took the time to speak publicly and at length about our son, Trayvon." The statement continued to say the comments "give us great strength at this time," and they applauded the president's willingness to "encourage an open and difficult dialogue."

Zimmerman's defense team also issued a statement responding to the president's speech Friday afternoon. "While we acknowledge and understand the racial context of this case, we challenge people to look closely and dispassionately at the facts," the statement said. "We believe those who look at the facts of the case without prejudice will see that it is a clear case of self-defense, and we are certain that those who take a closer look at the kind of person George Zimmerman is--something we understand the Department of Justice is currently doing--we are confident they will find a young man with with a diverse ethnic and racial background who is not a racist, a man who is, in fact, sensitive to the complex racial history of our country."

The defense statement also said, "While we acknowledge the racial context of the case, we hope that the President was not suggesting that this case fits a pattern of racial disparity, because we strongly contend that it does not."

Obama acknowledged on Friday that "each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race." But, he added, "It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated."

Amanda Sakuma contributed reporting.