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Empathic Obama Weighs In on Profiling, Gun Laws

Empathic Obama Weighs In on Profiling, Gun Laws

By Alexis Simendinger - July 20, 2013

What comes after a poignant presidential speech about race in America, and an unsettled hunt for justice?

If President Obama had the answers, he would not have needed a week to sort out what he wanted to tell Americans after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.

One of the jurors said after the verdict that the case did not turn on race. But in the African-American community, Obama saw a different picture. And it was for those “folks,” he said more than once on Friday, that he had something special to convey: I know what you feel.

For a second time in public, an African-American president identified with a dead boy. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said during his surprise appearance in the White House briefing room.

The main talking point from Democrats on cable news programs following the speech turned out to be less about where the country was headed after the verdict, and more about where Obama had been. “He spoke from the heart,” his supporters said again and again.

There was no question the president made it personal. But the agitation spread far beyond the West Wing.

As Obama described how “I passed” racial profile legislation in Illinois when he was a state senator, hundreds of protesters, including members of the NAACP, demonstrated outside the Tallahassee capitol. And Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott rebuffed critics, saying he would not call a special legislative session to consider changing the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. With a tough re-election race looming in 2014, Scott instead encouraged a day of prayer and reflection on Sunday. And if that weren’t enough, the National Rifle Association, the muscle behind the Florida law and others like it around the country, insisted that self-defense is a fundamental human right.

“If I see any violence,” Obama said, oddly sidestepping dozens of arrests of protesters in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., soon after the verdict, “I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”

What did happen to Trayvon Martin?

The president never said.

But the administration clearly believes expanded self-defense laws present problems. And with his explanations about how African-Americans viewed the case, Obama suggested that racial profiling was a problem, too.

Although Zimmerman’s defense team did not cite Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” statute, his attorneys nonetheless mounted a self-defense-style case, and the judge instructed the jury with quotes from the state’s controversial statute:

“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Obama made no effort to dissuade Americans who are convinced race played a role in Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal; even as he called for calm, the president commended a judicial system that weighed the evidence, and he acknowledged a verdict that in part hinged on reasonable doubt. And while saying that politicians do not play a useful role in organizing national conversations about race, Obama attempted to do just that.

“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,” the president said, “at least before I was a senator.”

Many African-Americans say they view Florida’s statute as the “shoot first law.” Black voters in the state opposed the law by 62 percent before the Zimmerman verdict, while white registered voters in the Sunshine State said in March they supported the “Stand Your Ground” law by the same percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of 1,000 registered voters.

African-Americans nationwide were more than twice as likely as whites to say they followed the trial closely, the Pew Research Center reported this month, outstripping interest in the Rodney King or O.J. Simpson trials. In fact, one in five blacks said they watched “almost all” of the trial coverage, while just 5 percent of whites said they were similarly attentive.

While addressing the racial perceptions tied to the trial, Obama plunged into the upheaval about whether justice can be blind in America if one is not white. It was precisely the sort of public debate White House aides had dodged for a week while they waited for the president to speak out.

“If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on the 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?” the president asked. “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

To examine self-defense laws in the states, the federal government would have to make a run at state legislatures and governors such as Scott, who has an $11 million war chest, but has lagged in polls against Democratic challenger and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Obama is scheduled to travel Thursday to Jacksonville for an economic event.

On Friday, the president also rekindled a fight with the NRA, with whom he sparred during the failed gun control legislative push this year. During the earlier White House discussions with law enforcement agencies about universal gun background checks and a potential assault weapons ban, “Stand Your Ground” laws were not center stage.

“I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws,” Obama said.

He did not specify how that would occur. But earlier in the week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration would stand with “our state and local partners … to prevent future tragedies.”

Holder is “reviewing what happened down there” in Florida, Obama said. More than 200 cases in the state have involved defendants attempting to use the “Stand Your Ground” law to try to secure acquittal. But while the president suggested the administration might have a role to play when it comes to state laws, he also backpedaled away from expectations that Justice might go after Zimmerman with a civil rights action. “I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here,” the president added.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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