Trayvon Martin 'could have been me 35 years ago,' President Obama says

Photo: Associated Press

(AP/ABC7) - Insisting that it’s time for everyone to do some soul-searching, President Obama said that he did not want to criticize the jury's decision, but he does want the verdict to spur a conversation about the current state of race relations. He added that any violence in response to the verdict would dishonor Trayvon’s memory.

"Where do we take this?" Obama 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?"

Though he is now the President of the United States, Barack Obama said on Friday to reporters that he relates to Trayvon Martin – saying that until he became a recognizable senator, he felt the sting of racism:

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in the department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me.”

Protestors gathered just outside the White House only hours after President Obama spoke out about the Trayvon Martin case, and they had mixed reactions.

Michael Coleman of Alexandria said that it broke his heart to hear the president's story: "I didn't think things like that still happened." Meanwhile, tourist Marcus Thomas said: "Him doing something about it means something to me. Him just talking about it doesn't do anything for me."

There who others who said the president's speech may just fan the racial flames, but Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille says he believes the president struck just the right tone:

"Part of doing a job means being a leader, and there are times when a leader must stand up for the right causes. Iff the cause is personal, so be it."

The mayor says that even today, walking the streets of his own city, sometimes whites will treat him differently if they don’t recognize him; he doesn’t know whether they are afraid or just uncomfortable.

Like President Obama, Euille believes this case presents an opportunity:

"Use this as a teachable moment -- to move forward and improve race relations."

One thing many people in the District can agree on is that this is a conversation that needs to be had. Even with an African-American president, Quantico resident Chris Laws says black men experience racism too often. Just two weeks ago, while wearing his polo shirt and khakis at the Virginia Hospital Center, he was stopped by police and asked if he was carrying a concealed weapon.

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 look.

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 Martin'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 Martin himself, if he had been armed, "could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk" and shot neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.

Obama's appearance marked his first extended comments on the Martin case since Zimmerman was acquitted last weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin's death last year. Jurors found that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department has an open investigation into the case. The department is looking into whether Zimmerman violated Martin's civil rights.

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