President Barack Obama called on the nation to engage in “soul searching” as he made his first public remarks Friday in the wake of the controversy over the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“The question, for me, at least, and I think for a lot of folks is, ‘Where do we take this?’” Obama said. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
The remarks — delivered in a surprise appearance at a sparsely attended Friday afternoon White House press briefing — served as some of the most extensive and personal remarks Obama has made on race since he became president. They came as he sought to explain why African-Americans, including himself, have been so pained by the case.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”
Like other African-American men, Obama said he has been followed in department stores and heard the click of car locks when he has walked past.
“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,” Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama said he’s talking with aides about steps that can be taken to avoid such incidents, including a possible review of the controversial “stand your ground” laws in nearly two dozen states. Though the Florida law wasn’t used in Zimmerman’s defense, Obama asked if Martin “was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”
But he said that despite criticism of the trial, it was handled “in a professional manner” and that “once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
He called it understandable that there have been demonstrations, vigils and protests, but he called for calm.
“If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family,” he said.
Obama seemed to signal that federal charges against Zimmerman — as many protestors have called for — are unlikely. He noted that Attorney General Eric Holder is reviewing the case, but he called for “clear expectations” on the matter. “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government,” Obama said. “The criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
But Obama said he believes there are steps “that as a nation” would be productive and said he’s bouncing ideas around with his staff. Among the issues: law-enforcement training at the state and local levels “to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”
He also suggested examining state and local laws such as stand your ground to determine “if they are 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.”