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Obama on Trayvon Martin death: a time of 'soul-searching' for 'all of us' (+video)

President Obama on Friday addressed for the first time the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, saying, 'If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.' Some decry an 'official national tragedy.'

By Staff writer / March 23, 2012

President Obama answers a reporter's question about the death of Trayvon Martin, Friday, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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As protests continued Friday over the shooting death last month of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, President Obama brought the matter to the top of the national agenda with a simple declaration: “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”

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The president's off-the-cuff comment, in answer to a reporter's question at a Rose Garden press conference Friday morning, is his first in public about the Trayvon Martin case, and it may well have captured the emotional reaction of parents far and wide to the teen's death. It is important, Mr. Obama said, "to figure out how this happened."

The case is steeped in many issues that have long been flash points in American society: race, gun rights, and fear of crime. 

“It's an official national tragedy at this point, and it's good for all of us to, hopefully, be able to have these important discussions about race and criminal justice in the 21st century,” says Donald Tibbs, a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Trayvon was fatally shot Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, armed with a 9 mm pistol, pursued someone he described to police as a suspicious “black male” wearing a hoodie. What happened isn't exactly known, but there was some kind of altercation, and Trayvon was shot and killed. The teen was unarmed and was returning to his dad's fianceé's house after a trip to a local convenience store, where he'd purchased a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

Zimmerman had contacted police about his suspicions. Tapes of the 911 conversations reveal that a police dispatcher had urged Zimmerman not to pursue the person. Still, after Trayvon's death, Zimmerman was not arrested, and police say they believed his claim that he shot in self-defense. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped down temporarily on Thursday after receiving a vote of no-confidence from the Sanford City Council.

Based on the report of an unidentified 16-year-old girl who was talking on the phone with Trayvon immediately before the incident, Trayvon first ran away from the watchman and then, as Zimmerman approached again, decided to just walk slowly away, until he was pushed.

Zimmerman told police he gave up chasing Trayvon, saying the teen attacked him as he was returning to his SUV. Zimmerman had a bloody nose, a cut on the back of his head, and grass on his shirt, according to the police incident report.

On several of the 911 calls, screams for help can be heard. Trayvon's parents say it's Trayvon's voice, but police have said they believe it was Zimmerman's.

Trayvon's parents and lawyers have called for Zimmerman's arrest, and over the past week thousands of Americans across the country have joined protests, some chanting, “I am Trayvon,” and carrying Skittles. This week, the FBI and the US Justice Department joined the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in reviewing the case and the decision not to charge Zimmerman.

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