March 23, 2012
Obama Speaks Out on Trayvon Martin Killing
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
President Obama spoke in highly personal terms on Friday about how the shooting in Florida of a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin had affected him, saying that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
The comments by Mr. Obama were his first on the explosive case in which a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense after shooting Mr. Martin several weeks ago. The case has generated outrage about the state’s so-called Stand Your Ground law.
Mr. Obama was asked about his feelings regarding the case during the announcement of his nominee for president of the World Bank in the Rose Garden on Friday morning.
The president often appears perturbed when he is asked off-topic questions at ceremonial events, but on Friday, he seemed eager to address the case, which has quickly developed into a cause célèbre around the country. He cautioned that his comments would be limited because the Justice Department was investigating. But he talked at length about his personal feelings about the case.
“I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this,” Mr. Obama said. “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”
The brief remarks were nonetheless a rare example of Mr. Obama speaking to the nation as an African-American parent and the father of two children.
“Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” Mr. Obama said, his face grim. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.Jonathan Ernst/ReutersPresident Obama spoke in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.
The most powerful line came at the end of his brief remarks, as he said that his “main message” was directed at the parents of Mr. Martin, who have expressed their deep grief during interviews on television over the last several days.
“You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Mr. Obama said, pausing for a moment. “I think they 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.”
Mr. Obama sidestepped some of the most sensitive and politically charged specifics about the case — whether Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested; whether the Stand Your Ground law goes too far in protecting people who shoot others; whether the police chief in Sanford, where the shooting took place, should be fired. (The chief, Bill Lee, stepped down temporarily on Thursday, saying he had become a distraction to the investigation.)
“I’m the head of the executive branch, and the attorney general reports to me,” Mr. Obama said. “So I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.”
Thousands of supporters of Mr. Martin’s parents expressed their outrage about the killing at a rally in Florida on Thursday night, adding to the growing political dimensions of the case.
Trayvon Martin.Courtesy of Sybrina FultonTrayvon Martin.
The shooting took place Feb. 26, when Mr. Zimmerman, 28, pursued, confronted and fatally shot Mr. Martin, an unarmed high school student carrying only an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
In a statement on Friday, Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said: “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”
Rick Santorum made some pointed comments about the killing while campaigning at a shooting range in West Monroe, La., before the Louisiana primary on Saturday.
“Well, stand your ground is not doing what this man did,” he said. “There’s a difference between stand your ground and doing what he did. It’s a horrible case. I mean it’s chilling to hear what happened, and of course the fact that law enforcement didn’t immediately go after and prosecute this case is another chilling example of horrible decisions made by people in this process.”
Newt Gingrich, campaigning Friday in Port Fourchon, La., said the district attorney had done “the right thing” in empaneling a grand jury. But, speaking of Mr. Zimmerman, he said it was “pretty clear that this is a guy who found a hobby that’s very dangerous.”
“Having some kind of neighborhood watch is reasonable, but you had somebody who was clearly overreaching,” Mr. Gingrich said. “As I understand Florida law, what he was doing had nothing to do with the law that people are talking about.”
A History of Caution on Race
The last time the president waded into a racially charged incident, it became a political problem for him.
Asked at a news conference about the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the summer of 2009, Mr. Obama offered his opinion, saying that the white officer from Cambridge, Mass., had acted “stupidly” and starting a weeklong controversy about what he said.
“I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3 , what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,’’ Mr. Obama said at the time. “That’s just a fact.’’
Mr. Obama eventually invited the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the police officer, James Crowley, to the White House to discuss the situation over some beers.
But despite that incident, the president has been careful not to wade into racial politics. As the nation’s first African-American president, he is sometimes criticized by black leaders who say he is not doing enough to deal with problems in that community.
Asked about the issue in a news conference in his first few months in office, Mr. Obama defended his approach as one that “will lift all boats” by working to “level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth.”
“I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country,” Mr. Obama said in April of 2009.
Richard A. Oppel contributed reporting from West Monroe, La., and Trip Gabriel from Port Fourchon, La.
[I think Obama is doing the right thing. He is POTUS, not President of African-Americans. He is a symbol that the members of that community has progressed, if not arrived. If he does help the African-American community, it should be in his personal capacity as far as possible. Which is difficult to do as POTUS.]