President Obama Speaks Candidly About Trayvon Martin Case

Jul 19, 2013
Originally published on July 19, 2013 6:12 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. A surprise today in the White House briefing room. President Obama appeared unexpectedly to cries of whoa from journalists there. He took the podium to speak out publically in usually personal terms about the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in that shooting. Obama didn't second-guess the jury's verdict, but he tried to suggest a broader context for the case.

Our coverage begins with NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama said he'd leave it to others to comment on the legal issues surrounding the case. Instead, he used his surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to address the public reaction and the pain that's been left by the shooting and the court case, especially among African-Americans.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Obama is uniquely qualified to talk about those experiences as America's first black president, but he almost never does so for fear of offending some or seemingly something less than a president for all Americans. Some people objected last year when the president said that if he had a son, his son would look like Trayvon Martin. So it was striking this afternoon when Obama said he knows what it's like to be followed while shopping in a department store.

OBAMA: 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. That happened to me, at least before I was a senator.

HORSLEY: And Obama said those experiences help inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. Blacks are not naive about the statistics, the president said. They know young black men are over-represented among both the victims and perpetrators of crime. They know Trayvon Martin was more likely to have been shot by a peer than by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

But Obama said that does not excuse treating any young black man in a hoodie as a suspicious troublemaker.

OBAMA: And that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, then from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

HORSLEY: While the Justice Department is reviewing the shooting for possible civil rights violations, the president downplayed the chances that federal charges will be brought. Instead, he suggested the department work with state and local law enforcement to reduce mistrust among African-Americans. Mindful of the heat he took in 2009 when he criticized police for arresting a black Harvard professor, Obama was careful today to note that law enforcement has a tough job to do.

The president also called for a review of Stand Your Ground laws, suggesting the implicit message that it's okay to shoot might lead to more violent confrontations.

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: The president also discussed what he called a long term project of helping young black men.

OBAMA: 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?

HORSLEY: Obama said he's not suggesting a grand new federal program. Instead, he hopes to use his office to enlist businesspeople, athletes and clergymen in the effort, something he's already been doing on a small scale. Finally, Obama said it's important for all Americans to do some soul-searching about their biases, not through a stilted White House-sponsored conference, but with honest conversations in homes, workplaces and churches.

After a long week of public silence on the subject, Obama did his part to start that conversation today. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.