Washington – The shooting of an unarmed black teenager – and the gunman’s acquittal in a murder trial – angered African-Americans because the case echoed injustices of the past, US President Barack Obama has said.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said yesterday in unscheduled remarks to reporters at the White House.
“And 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 recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
The 17-year-old Martin was shot dead in February 2012 by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges on July 13 by a Florida jury. Defence lawyers argued that Zimmerman shot in self defence.
The trial’s outcome has dominated US headlines since the verdict. The White House was barraged this week with questions about why Obama had not spoken publicly about the matter, though he did issue a written statement Sunday.
Major protests are planned for today outside federal courthouses in more than 100 cities around the country.
Martin’s mother and brother, Sybrina and Jahvaris Fulton, will join civil-rights leader Al Sharpton at the rally in New York, and his father, Tracy Martin, is to appear at a demonstration in Miami, Sharpton’s National Action Network said.
Martin’s parents welcomed Obama’s remarks and said they hoped conversations about their son’s death would bring focus on important societal issues.
“What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy,” they said in a statement.
“Trayvon’s life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come. We applaud the president’s call to action to bring communities together to encourage an open and difficult dialogue.”
Obama said White House staff were considering broader political and social approaches to address issues of criminal justice and racial profiling.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department has been reviewing the case to see whether any federal civil rights statutes had been violated, and whether it could take any fresh legal action.
Obama said state gun laws, such as Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, should be evaluated for possibly escalating rather than discouraging armed confrontations.
He said US society needs to lift up African-American young men, who are disproportionately the victims of violence, mostly at each other’s hands.
“Is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” Obama asked, citing it as a potential positive outcome of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
He called on Americans to “do some soul-searching” and be more honest about their own prejudices, noting advances in equality with “each successive generation” and citing his own daughters’ social interactions.
“It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated,” Obama said. “But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. … And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”
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