WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Friday jumped into the debate over the acquittal of the man who killed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, declaring that Martin “could have been me, 35 years ago,” and urging Americans to understand the pain that African-Americans feel over the case.
Obama came into the White House press briefing room to offer his thoughts on the case involving George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was found not guilty of murder on Saturday after shooting 17-year-old Martin during a struggle.
The Zimmerman case has brought matters of race into the American conversation once again, between those who feel Zimmerman was acting in self defense and others who believe there was no need for him to shoot the unarmed teenager.
Without saying so specifically, Obama clearly sided with the argument that the shooting need not have happened, expressing sympathy to the Martin family and praising family members for the “incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation.”
He said the case was properly handled in the Florida court and the fact that the jury found reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case against Zimmerman was relevant. And yet, he added, it is important that Americans understand the context from the black perspective.
“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,” he said somberly.
Obama, 51, recalled his own encounters with racism as a way of explaining the pain that the black community has expressed over the case.
“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,” he said.
He said he has heard the clicks of car doors locking when he walked across the street in his younger days.
“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,” he said.
While he said he believes younger generations have fewer issues with racism, Americans need to do some “soul searching” on whether they harbor prejudice.
They should consider, “Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” he said.
Noting racial disparities in the application of U.S. criminal laws on everything from the death penalty to enforcement of drug laws, Obama had a number of recommendations.
He urged the Justice Department work with local governments about state and local training to reduce mistrust in the system and that states should examine laws to see if they are designed in such a way that may encourage altercations.
Obama specifically mentioned Florida’s “stand your ground” law that was central to Zimmerman’s argument that he acted in self defense and shot Martin during their altercation. The law was not cited as part of Zimmerman’s defense but one juror cited it in acquitting him.
“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? 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,” said Obama.