Obama: ‘Trayvon could have been me’
BY LYNN SWEET Twitter: @lynnsweet July 19, 2013 8:11PM
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, Friday, July 19, 2013, in Washington, about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Updated: August 21, 2013 6:14AM
WASHINGTON — “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” President Barack Obama said Friday, delivering extensive, personal, powerful and rare remarks about race — from the explicit perspective of a black man — in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
When Martin was killed in 2012, Obama said he “could have been my son.” Obama went further on Friday, as he identified strongly with Martin while delivering comments in the White House briefing room, pulling off a total surprise.
“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,” Obama said.
The president went on to talk about his own experiences growing up — tailed in stores, watching women “clutch their purses” while sharing an elevator ride.
What I found most remarkable was Obama’s candid and raw assessment — putting in words what I bet a lot of people were thinking — that if Martin, an unarmed black teen, had been white he might have not have been shot by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Putting himself in a position of explaining to the nation the pain the African-American community felt over the Martin killing and verdict Obama said the “context” of what happened must be understood.
“If a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” Obama said.
A Florida jury cleared Zimmerman last Saturday, and if you wonder why Obama waited until Friday to speak out about it, a reason is, I was told by a White House official, was that he first wanted to wait and see what the reaction would be in African-American and other communities across the nation.
Obama, I’m told, had been talking to family and friends about the verdict — that includes first lady Michelle — and late yesterday he pulled together five or six members of his senior staff in the Oval Office, telling them he wanted to speak out publicly.
He walked through his line of thinking with top staffers — not exactly a rehearsal, but a warm-up for Friday, where he by design wanted to talk off-the-cuff.
White House staffers were expecting Obama to be quizzed about Martin and Zimmerman on Tuesday, during a series of interviews he granted to Spanish-language media, but those journalists did not bring up Zimmerman’s controversial acquital for second-degree murder.
While Obama was prepared to respond to questions about the case on Tuesday, if he had his replies would have by necessity been compressed.
Instead, on Friday — in his first on-camera remarks — Obama spoke for 18 minutes. He did not read a speech from a teleprompter. He spoke extemporaneously, as he planned. He had handwritten notes — on one card.
Obama did not want a crafted speech because he wanted to speak from the heart, I was told.
If his team had announced a formal Trayvon Martin speech, much of Friday’s cable shows would have been consumed with pre-game punditry. The deliberate surprise gave Obama the clutter-free message environment he wanted.
The nation’s difficult racial issues, it has turned out, did not fade away with the election and re-election of Obama. The Obama era so far has been disappointing to anyone who thought it would lead to a quick healing of racial divides.
Until Friday, Obama’s most major speech about race was on March 18, 2008, during his first presidential run, when he was locked in a Democratic primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton and his bid was threatened by remarks made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
He also spoke personally in that Philadelphia speech — describing his white grandmother, who raised him, as “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
Obama also stumbled into opening up a national conversation about race in this country after I asked him about race relations in America in a July, 22, 2009, press conference after the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home.
“The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama said, triggering an uproar.
Obama is no stranger to racial profiling issues — a central issue in the Martin controversy. Obama noted in his Friday remarks that he passed anti-racial profiling legislation while an Illinois state senator.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder denounced the “stand your ground” laws in Florida and some 30 states in all during a speech before the NAACP. Obama called for an examination of “stand your ground,” even though it wasn’t used in Zimmerman’s defense.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Friday — before Obama spoke — announced that he will hold a hearing on “stand your ground” laws in September.
Said Obama, seeing Martin in himself, “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”