Looking for positive lessons to draw from the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, US president Barack Obama said today the nation needs to do some “soul-searching”.
Mr Obama said the US needed to look for ways to bolster African-American boys and examine state and local laws to see if they encourage confrontations like the one in Florida.
“Where do we take this?” the president wondered aloud in an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
Mr Obama said it is time “for all of us to some soul searching” but he also said it is generally not productive when politicians try to orchestrate a conversation.
On the positive side, he said race relations in the US actually are getting better. Looking at his own daughters and their interactions with friends, the president said, “They’re better than we are. They’re better than we were.”
The widely followed case led to discussions about race and US self defence laws. Mr Obama, the first black American elected president, rarely speaks about race.
The president declined to wade into the detail of legal questions about the Florida case, saying, “Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
But he said state and local laws, such as Florida’s “stand your ground” statute, need a close looking at.
Mr Obama said it would be useful “to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation” that led to Trayvon’s death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation” really promotes the peace and security that people want.
And he raised the question of whether Trayvon himself, if he had been armed, “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk” and shot neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Mr Obama’s appearance marked his first extended comments on the case since Mr Zimmerman was acquitted last weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Trayvon’s death last year. Jurors found that Mr Zimmerman was acting in self-defence when he shot the unarmed black teenager. Mr Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
US attorney general Eric Holder has said the Justice Department has an open investigation into the case. The department is looking into whether Mr Zimmerman violated Trayvon’s civil rights.
Mr Obama, who early on had said that if he had a son, the boy would have looked like Trayvon, today drew an even more personal connection, saying that “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago”.
He said that as people process the Zimmerman verdict, it is important to put the angry reaction of many African-Americans into context.
Protests and demonstrations, he said, are understandable, adding that “some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through – as long as it remains nonviolent”.
“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,” he said.
He said that distrust shadows African-American men, that they sometimes are closely followed when they shop at department stores, that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street - experiences that he personally felt before becoming a well-known figure.
“It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.