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President Obama Remarks on Trayvon Martin Examined

Aired July 19, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago, said President Obama, as he breaks his silence on the George Zimmerman verdict.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

And we're going to begin and focus on our national lead today. It's been six days since George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin. And beyond a statement on paper, President Obama has remained silent about it until just a few hours ago.

In a rare moment, with no warning, the president made a surprise drop- in during the White House briefing, and he gave his personal thoughts, appearing to speak largely off the cuff. The president gave some of the most personal comments on race and the African-American experience in this country that he's given in quite some time on the eve of mass protests planned in cities across the country.

It was right in the middle of the day, so many of you out there probably missed it and there was not a heads-up. So we want to play for you in its entirety the president's remarks right now.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling.

I gave an -- a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, you know, I -- I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle's, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they're going through, and it's -- it's remarkable how they've handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal -- legal issues in the case. I will let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a -- in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, 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. 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 recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn't go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And 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 happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And, you know, I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that's unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain. I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

So -- so folks understand the challenges that exist for African- American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it or -- and that context is being denied. And -- and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think, for a lot of folks is, where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? You know, I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.

But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it's important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government -- the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn't mean, though, that as a nation, we can't do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I'm still bouncing around with my staff so we're not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it'd be productive for the Justice Department -- governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement's got a very tough job.

So that's one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And -- and let's figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the stand your ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.

On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these stand your ground laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?

And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three -- and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And 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?

You know, I'm not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.

I'm not sure that that's what we're talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I've got some convening power.

And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that -- and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed -- you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we're going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.

They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can not based on the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post- racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. 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. They're better than we were on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, we're becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union but a more perfect union.

All right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, guys.

TAPPER: You've been watching --

the president's reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict six days after the jury found Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

The Martin family has just issued their own reaction to the president's remarks. Let me read those to you.

"We are deeply honored and moved that President Obama took the time to speak publicly and at length about our son Trayvon. The president's comments give us great strength at this time. We are thankful for President Obama and Michelle's prayers and we ask for your prayers as well as we continue to move forward. We know that the death of our son Trayvon, the trial, and the not guilty verdict have been difficult for many people. We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in our country. 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. 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. Our family is committed to this dialogue through the work of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. We seek a future when a child can walk down the street and not worry that others see him as dangerous because of the color of his skin or the clothes on his back. We seek a future where our children can grow up and become the people God intended them to be."

Let's bring in our panel to talk about all this, to have that difficult conversation that the Martin family so eloquently called for just now.

Kevin Madden, former adviser to Mitt Romney, Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director for President Obama, and Clinton Yates, "Washington Post" columnist.

So, wow, that was an intense 16 minute speech by President Obama.

I want to ask you all what you think the purpose of that speech was -- what he wanted to achieve and whether he achieved it.


ANITA DUNN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think you saw the president refer to context several times in the course of this speech. The need to give context to this discussion, and I think this is something that he does as president and that he did as a candidate -- is to address these issues and to try to give context to both sides to try to reduce the polarization and the divide around them. And I think that as he watched the conversation unfold this week, that he felt this was an appropriate time to step forward again, it felt very spontaneous.

TAPPER: It definitely felt spontaneous. I didn't feel like in this speech as opposed to other speeches, Kevin, that he was trying to give context to both sides. I felt that he very much was trying to speak as an African-American and maybe trying to explain the reaction in the African-American community to people who are not African-American. Do you think that's fair? I mean --

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don't think there was a big grand strategy here. I think that there were elements of the president's speech where he seemed genuinely reluctant but he was very personal. I think in effort to be personal, I think what he was doing -- I was incredibly shock by how he tried to balance some of the arguments that were made by different sides during this case.

TAPPER: Absolutely. Especially when he talked about crimes committed by African-Americans.

MADDEN: Correct. A little bit of Anita's point, I think that he was trying to lower the temperature somewhat. But I think there are going to be a lot of critics out there that said by being so personal about it, by personalizing and injecting himself into it, that he'd be doing the exact opposite.

TAPPER: Clinton, you've been here all week talking with us about this trial. What's your reaction?

CLINTON YATES, WASHINGTON POST: As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most important, if not the most important thing he said while he's been in office, to take the context of race and explain it as the reality that exists for many people of color in America is something that a lot of people simply don't want to believe is true. But when the president stands in that room and makes that statement, it has a very forceful comment about the state of affairs so far today.

TAPPER: Kevin, there's also been rampant on the president's remarks online. FOX News radio host Todd Starnes just called the president race baiter in chief on Facebook. Quote, "He actually said the outcome might have been different if Trayvon had been white. Folks, we have reached the very dangerous point in this nation when the president of the United States begins to question the judicial system."

This is some of the pushback that we knew would happen. I've seen other remarks such as the first African-American president comes forward and says racism still exists, even though obviously he has been elected twice. I know it's to be expected.

But do you think any of the criticism is fair?

MADDEN: Well, look, in order to look at this politically, you have to look at it very clinically. And I think we do have to ask the question. Does this president or is he passed the point of having a very positive when it comes to conversations that are very difficult like this, because he came in and his public profile was very much one that was supposed to be a uniter. But as we've seen with issues like this and others, he has actually sort of generated the worst of both right and left, and he's become a very polarizing figure.

So, he -- I think, he sometimes -- a lot of people say, and this I think is the genesis of a lot of that criticism right now, is not the best person to bring people together and have a conversation, because he actually drives people apart.

TAPPER: Not because of his race, because he's a partisan Democrat.

MADDEN: Correct.

YATES: Let me address that. A lot of that is the fact that people don't want to be real with themselves about what they believe. Just because they bring up a topic that happens to be uncomfortable, two sides choose to walk away from it. That's not on the person that's trying to have a conversation. I think that's something we need to understand here. People aren't willing to be honest about what they feel and try to change it beyond just say I want to talk about the talk.

MADDEN: Yes, there's truth in that, but there's also the reality, which is that the president has been somebody who hasn't been the uniter that he promised to be.

DUNN: OK. So, Jake, I guess that as usual the conversation devolves to people blaming the president because one of the political parties never wanted to cooperate with him.

TAPPER: I don't think that's exactly what happened today.

DUNN: I do think that's somewhat what you're saying. I think that the president of the United States at a time when there's a national conversation going on, whoever that president is, has a real responsibility to step up and to help shape it in a way that's going to be constructive and to help move this country forward.

I think Barack Obama, as the first African-American president, is the first major African-American candidate in 2008, when those opportunities arose, has always done just that and done that in a way that does help move it forward. And I think if you look at his speech from 2008 and if you look at his speech today, the Philadelphia speech. And you look at today, and you see him constantly talking about, you know, talking honestly to both sides, and across the divide.

But what you also see the president doing is speaking about the progress and speaking about it in a very real, tangible way towards that more perfect union. And I think that's what presidents do at times like this, is that they help guide a discussion towards a more constructive discussion.

TAPPER: All right. We're going to take a very quick break.

Before we do, I want to update you on some other breaking news going on this afternoon, out of Detroit. In the past hour, a Michigan judge has ruled that the bankruptcy filing for the city of Detroit violates the state constitution and he's ordered that the case be withdrawn. Detroit officials filed for bankruptcy yesterday as we reported here on THE LEAD. The move could slash pension benefits to city workers and retirees and leave bond holders with just pennies on the dollar. The state's attorney general intends to appeal today's ruling, of course, the ruling that deem that bankruptcy move unconstitutional. Just wanted to make sure that that news was conveyed.

We're going to have a lot, much more discussion on this on THE LEAD. You heard what the president had to say on a stand your ground laws, but will his comments give opponents of the laws a stronger leg to stand on, or provide more ammunition for gun rights supporters? We'll talk to Chris Darden, a former prosecutor for the O.J. Simpson trial coming up.

And more with our panel.

Stay with us.