Just yesterday we were wondering why President Obama hadn’t made a statement about the murder of Trayvon Martin. While some argued that this was a matter the president shouldn’t speak on, others cited the fact that he reached out to Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh called her ‘sl*t.’ Up until today the White House had remained silent.
But today, for the first time since the controversy erupted on the national scene, President Barack Obama weighed in on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, calling it a tragedy, urging cooperation among law enforcement and declaring that ‘some soul searching’ was needed throughout the country (see the video above.)
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” President Obama said, underscoring how the issue affected him on a personal, and not just a political or legal, level. “I think [Trayvon's parents] 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.”
Trayvon Martin, was shot by George Zimmerman, a Latino, on Febrary 26th. Zimmerman told Sanford police that he acted in self-defense and police decided not to charge the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer. He has avoided arrest by evoking the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in Florida, which allows individuals broad latitude to claim self defense in wielding a firearm.
Florida is one of 21 states with such laws, which have since come under intense scrutiny even by previous supporters. Prior to that law being passed in Florida, there were 13 ‘justified’ killings in the state each year. Since then, there have been 36, as reported by the Associated Press.
Since that decision, the police chief has temporarily stepped aside and protests have roiled the Florida city with a turbulent racial past. And rallies, vigils and school walk-outs have emerged across the country, including in Los Angeles and New York City.
In response, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi announced they were appointing a special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, to investigate the shooting. The move came after Scott talked with the sitting prosecutor Norman Wolfinger, who recused himself. In addition to the state grand jury is scheduled to meet next month on the case and the U.S. Department of Justice is examining the incident to see if a federal hate crime took place.
The statement by Obama came after he introduced Dartmouth President Jim Kim to be the next head of the World Bank during an appearance in the Rose Garden. He took only one question before heading back into the West Wing – signaling that both he and his press handlers were feeling pressure, coming from black activists and others, to make a public comment on the Martin case.
President Obama was careful not to get too far ahead of events. He said he was wary of ‘impairing’ an ongoing legal process but praised the fact that federal, state and local law enforcement are now working together on Martin’s death.
“Obviously, this is a tragedy,” he said. “I can only imagine what these parents are going through, and when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together – federal, state and local – to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”
Barack Obama continued: “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.”
The latter point may, in the end, be the most politically consequential. Mitt Romney, the leader in delegates for the GOP presidential nomination, agreed with Obama for the first time. “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy,” he said in a statement. “There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”
There have been conflicting accounts of what happened the night of February 26, but all the parties agree that George Zimmerman shot and killed Martin Trayvon. According to police, Zimmerman maintain that Trayvon attacked him.
The family says that Trayvon was returning to his father’s home from a convenience store and was walking through a gated community in the Orlando suburb when Zimmerman confronted the teenager. Police tapes show that Zimmerman called to report seeing a suspicious person and was told to stand down by the operator. But he didn’t. The family says that Martin was talking to his girlfriend on a cellphone and said their son was afraid.
Civil rights activists also question how Zimmerman was treated by police because he was not charged, and alcohol or drug tests were not taken. They argue that if a black neighborhood watch person had shot a white teenager, police would have reacted differently.
Even as he was stepping down, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee again defended his department’s investigation of the incident. Police have said they acted correctly, given the Florida law. Lee stepped aside hours before thousands marched on Thursday night in Sanford to protest the handling of the case.