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

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.'

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

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.”

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.

Before he stepped down, Chief Lee explained to Sanford residents in a letter that, under Florida law, police officers were “prohibited” from arresting Zimmerman, because they could not disprove his claims of self-defense, nor could they determine that his fears of bodily harm or death were unreasonable.

But some legal experts say local police may have misread the law, especially if it's true, as the family says, that Zimmerman initiated contact with Trayvon, who himself may have been exercising his right to “stand his ground” by fighting back against an armed stranger approaching him on a dark street.

“I wouldn't be surprised if at some point or another, at the federal level or in the grand jury process, someone didn't make that simple observation, that this was not the sort of standard case where one is assaulted in one's home or car,” says Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University. “This is a fellow who was ... pursuing someone.”

Zimmerman has stayed out of the spotlight, but his father, Robert Zimmerman, said in a letter published in the Orlando Sentinel that his son is not a racist and did not initiate the attack. The senior Zimmerman blamed the media for drawing false and inaccurate conclusions.

Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, have asked to meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder, who was expected to talk about the case during an already-scheduled meeting with black ministers on Friday. The FBI's hate crimes unit is trying to ascertain whether Zimmerman used a racial slur during a 911 call, which could be grounds for a hate crime charge.

In his brief comments Friday about the case, Obama said, “All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen." He continued, "and that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened as well as the specifics of the incident."

Obama has tried in the past, not always successfully, to navigate the perils of race and politics. The most notable incidents were the 2009 “beer summit” between the president's friend, Harvard Prof. Henry “Skip” Gates, and a Cambridge, Mass., police captain who arrested Mr. Gates at his own home, and the case of Shirley Sherrod, a black official at the US Department of Agriculture who in 2010 was hastily fired, with White House foreknowledge, after a manipulated video surfaced in which she appeared to be denying USDA help to a white farmer. Obama subsequently apologized to Ms. Sherrod.

While acknowledging that he shares a racial background wtih Trayvon, Obama faces the challenge of casting the teen's death not as a tragedy for black Americans, but for all Americans.

“That's why this tragedy resonates with so many African-American men, is that they would have the same viewpoint as the president, that, 'This could be my son,' ” says Professor Tibbs. “But while race is definitely involved here, we shouldn't try to have the conversation simply through the lens of race, but that this is a tragedy for everyone, that this is a father who lost his son to needless violence.”

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