President Barack Obama kept his own counsel after the six women deciding whether George Zimmerman deserved prison time for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin delivered their verdict, releasing only a written statement appealing for calm the day after the ex-neighborhood watchman had been cleared of all charges.
But the president was quietly keeping tabs on the country’s response to the outcome of the racially charged trial, particularly in the black community. He discussed it with his family. By Thursday, aides said Obama was telling top advisers the country needed to hear from him, not in a way the White House would script but in a frank discussion of his views and experiences as a black man in America.
On Friday, he stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room and delivered a rare and extensive reflection on race by a president who has shied away from the issue even though he is constantly dogged by it.
“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.
“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,” he said.
“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,” Obama said.
A Florida jury last Saturday acquitted Zimmerman, 29, of all charges in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon, who was 17 and unarmed. The outcome cheered those who agreed that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense, and angered those who believe the teenager was targeted by Zimmerman because he was black.
Despite the emotional aspect of his comments, Obama appeared to signal that the Justice Department is unlikely to charge Zimmerman with violating Trayvon’s civil rights, despite intense pressure to do so from the NAACP and others. An NAACP petition urging the department to charge Zimmerman has collected more than 1.5 million signatures.
Obama, too, had been under pressure from civil rights leaders and others to speak out, but he resisted doing so until Friday. His only comment on the verdict was the paper statement issued Sunday calling Trayvon’s death a tragedy for the country and urging the public to heed the “call for calm reflection” from the boy’s grieving parents.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict, he gave voice to the feelings of those who were angered by the decision.
He said he was considering a number of steps, including law enforcement training, examining state and local “stand-your- ground” laws to see if they encourage the kinds of confrontations that ended with Trayvon’s death and how to give black boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”
He also called on the country to search its soul.
Meanwhile, rallies were held in dozens of U.S. cities Saturday, urging authorities to change self-defense laws and press federal civil rights charges against a former neighborhood-watch leader found not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin.
Al Sharpton’s National Action Network organized “Justice for Trayvon” rallies and vigils outside federal buildings in at least 101 cities one week after a jury delivered the verdict.