Washington, DC – The first African-American President of the United States came out on Friday (July 19) to express his personal thoughts on the ongoing shock of the US population over the jury decision in a “Stand Your Ground” case in the Sunshine State of Florida. A six person, all female jury in the small, conservative town of Sanford, FL ruled last Saturday that the accused, George Zimmerman, was not guilty of all criminal charges in the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin.
After a 16 hour deliberation, the jury acquitted the 29 year old Zimmerman, who had been ordered by police to stop following Martin as he returned home from buying candy at a nearby convenience store.
Making a surprise appearance, President Obama told journalists in the Brady Press Briefing room in the White House, “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’s 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.”
During a speech in March last year, Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they [Trayvon’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
Zimmerman, who is of white and Hispanic descent, shot the unarmed black teenager at point blank range after a brief altercation in the mostly white, gated community, setting off an intense national debate about race, gun control and Florida’s wide latitude in permitting claims of self-defense. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who was legally allowed to carry the 9mm semi-automatic pistol in the state of Florida, was not charged with any crime for 44 days, and it was only after a nationwide outcry that charges were brought.
In a personally revealing speech, President Obama related that prior to be elected as a senator, he had the experience of being followed when shopping in a department store, had walked across the street and heard the locks click on car doors and had entered an elevator and seen a woman clutch her purse nervously and hold her breath until she had a chance to get off.
Obama was emotional as he addressed journalists, stressing that he didn’t want to “exaggerate,” but “those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
African American males know they are more likely to be both “victims and perpetrators of violence,” Obama said, and “somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
The president addressed the frustrations of the African American experience with the justice system, as he spoke frankly about racial prejudice in the US, saying, “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.”
Obama said, “The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”
Although there were widely differing views of the verdict, Obama said the process had been a professionally conducted trial, and “once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” Obama acknowledged the ongoing demonstrations and peaceful protests, but cautioned that violence “dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an African American civil rights organization which was formed in 1909, expressed their disappointment at the outcome.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous declared in a statement, “We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
Noting that “traditionally, these are issues of state and local government,” President Obama said that the Justice Department was investigating whether to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations in the wake of Trayvon’s 2012 death.
The President questioned the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida, saying that an armed person was potentially more likely to use their firearm, “even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation.”
Obama asked Americans to ask themselves, had the roles been reversed, whether Trayvon had the right to stand his ground, adding, “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?”
Urging Americans “to do some soul-searching,” Obama said there are too many kids out there who need help, but “are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.” He suggested the creation of federal programs to provide guidance and address the challenges faced by young African American men.
President Obama, however, cautioned against politicians convening a conversation on race, saying, “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”
Instead, the president suggested the venues should be in families and churches and workplaces, where, he said, “there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
Endorsing Obama’s call for honest discussion on the status of race relations in the US, Valarie Kaur, the founding director of Groundswell at Auburn Seminary said, “This is a moment for faith and moral leaders of all traditions — Christian, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist, Native, Hindu, and Humanist — to inspire deep authentic dialogue about how we see one another as fellow Americans.”
“We can lead with the power of storytelling and compassionate listening to help wring out the bias in our own communities, homes and hearts,” added Kaur.
The president noted that, over time, positive changes in society have been occurring, saying, “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.”
However, Obama cautioned, “It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.”