WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP) — Since George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin claiming self-defense, was acquitted of charges last Saturday, Stevie Wonder boycotted performances in Florida, Al Sharpton called for vigils in 100 cities nationwide, students protesters slept for a third night in the Florida Capitol building hallway, and the list goes on and on. Now, President Obama has spoken about the trial’s verdict.
In an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room Friday, President Barack Obama said that the nation needs to do some “soul-searching,” look for ways to bolster African-American boys and examine state and local laws to see if they encourage confrontations like the one in Florida.
“Where do we take this?” Obama wondered aloud. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
The president said it’s time “for all of us to some soul searching,” but he also said it’s generally not productive when politicians try to orchestrate a conversation.
On the positive side, he said race relations in the United States actually are getting better Looking at his own daughters and their interactions with friends, the president said, “They’re better than we are. They’re better than we were.”
The president declined to wade into the detail of legal questions about the Florida case, saying, “Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
But he said state and local laws, such as Florida’s ”stand your ground” statute, need a close look.
Obama said it would be useful “to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation” that led to Martin’s death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation” really promotes the peace and security that people want.
And he raised the question of whether Martin himself, if he had been armed, “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk” and shot neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Obama’s appearance marked his first extended comments on the Martin case since Zimmerman was acquitted last weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin’s death last year. Jurors found that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department has an open investigation into the case. The department is looking into whether Zimmerman violated Martin’s civil rights.
Obama, who early on had said that if he had a son, the boy would have looked like Martin, on Friday drew an even more personal connection, saying that “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.”
He said that as people process the Zimmerman verdict, it’s important to put the angry reaction of many African-Americans into context. Protests and demonstrations, he said, are understandable, adding that “some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through — as long as it remains nonviolent.”
“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,” he said.
He said that distrust shadows African-American men, that they sometimes are closely followed when they shop at department stores, that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street — experiences that he personally felt before becoming a well-known figure.
“It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.
Shortly after the President addressed the nation Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s parents, released a statement commenting on the President’s remarks:
We are deeply honored and moved that President Obama took the time to speak publicly and at length about our son, Trayvon. The President’s comments give us great strength at this time. We are thankful for President Obama’s and Michelle’s prayers, and we ask for your prayers as well as we continue to move forward.
We know that the death of our son Trayvon, the trial and the not guilty verdict have been deeply painful and difficult for many people. We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America and to try and talk about the difficult issues that we need to bring into the light in order to become a better people.
What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.
Trayvon’s life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come. We applaud the President’s call to action to bring communities together to encourage an open and difficult dialogue. Our family is committed to this dialogue through the work of the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
We seek a future when a child can walk down the street and not worry that others see him as dangerous because of the color of his skin or the clothes on his back. We seek a future where our children can grow up and become the people God intended them to be.
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)