WASHINGTON (AP) - Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, made a surprise and emotional appearance Friday to talk about the slaying of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the trial that found his killer not guilty of murder. He said Americans need to do some "soul-searching" about the killing and the country's difficult racial history.
Obama spoke emotionally about the kind of subconscious racial profiling that blacks, especially young black men, continue to suffer in the country, telling reporters and cable television networks that carried the speech live that he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago. He spoke of his own experience earlier in life of being followed by department store security agents when shopping and of hearing drivers click door locks as they drove by him on the street.
"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," the president said.
Obama waited six days before talking about the verdict. George Zimmerman was found not guilty on charges of second degree murder and manslaughter for shooting and killing Martin in a condominium complex in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, who was armed with a hand gun, was part of the neighbor watch organization that patrolled the development against potential criminals.
Martin was staying in the complex and had gone out on a rainy evening last year to buy snacks at a local convenience story. He was spotted by Zimmerman as Martin walked back to the residence. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up against the weather. Zimmerman called the police emergency number to report that he thought Martin was acting suspiciously. The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin because police were on the way.
Martin ignored that request, followed Martin and a scuffle or fight apparently took place during which Zimmerman shot the teen.
Police initially did not charge Zimmerman because he said he was acting in self-defense. Florida's stand-your-ground law, one that is on the books in some other states, allows the use of deadly force if a person feels their life is in danger.
After the details of the case became known nationwide, sparking outrage in the African American community in particular, charges were filed. But after a lengthy trial, a jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty, again prompting a series of demonstrations across the United States.
Obama 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.
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."