President Barack Obama responded on Friday to a Florida jury finding neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, saying the African-American teenager “could have been me 35 years ago.”
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot,” Obama said during the daily White House press briefing on Friday, “I said that this could’ve been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.”
“When you think about why, in the African-American community, there’s a lot of pain around what happened. I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences, a history. That doesn’t go away.”
“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. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator,” Obama continued. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and having a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
“I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” he said. He went on to say that African-Americans were highly aware that there is a “history of racial disparity in our criminal laws” — from the death penalty to the drug war.
Update (3:40 p.m.): Robert Zimmerman Jr., brother to George Zimmerman, was reached by Fox News on Friday afternoon to react to the president’s remarks.
“The president talked about encouraging African-American youth but I would say also youth of all colors,” Zimmerman told Fox News by phone, as reported by TPM. “It might be in situations in their life that they don’t feel like they’re getting the encouragement from society that they need. That’s one of the things my brother was doing before this incident.”
UPDATE (7:27 pm ET): A White House aide explained Obama’s decision to speak about the Zimmerman verdict to Talking Points Memo:
“The president had been talking to friends and family about the verdict and their observations,” the aide said. “And late afternoon or early evening yesterday, he told a handful of his advisers that he’d like to speak publicly about it. He thought the timing was right.”
The aide confirmed that Obama spoke with only a few handwritten notes on cards, saying, “He wanted to speak extemporaneously and from the heart about his views on the case and what he thought we can do moving forward.”
Watch the video, broadcast by CNN on July 19.