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

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

WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
Obama: Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about race in the context of the not guilty ruling of George Zimmerman in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012, at the White House in Washington, July 19. AFP photo

U.S. President Barack Obama offered a very personal take on the Trayvon Martin case on July 19, saying that 35 years ago, he could have been the unarmed black teen shot dead by a neighborhood watchman.

In a surprise appearance before reporters, Obama hailed the "incredible grace and dignity" of Martin's parents and warned that a resort to violence in the wake of the Florida court verdict would "dishonor" his death.

He also called for a review of controversial "stand your ground" laws like the one in place in Florida, which assert that citizens can use lethal force - rather than retreat - if they sense their lives are at risk.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," Obama said, in his first substantive comments on a verdict that has aroused an impassioned debate on U.S. race relations.

Could Martin 'stood his ground'

While he refrained from direct comment on the jury's decision to acquit neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on July 13, Obama weighed in on the larger issues of race raised by the case.

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" Obama asked.

"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, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws," he said.

Obama also urged better training of law enforcement at the state and local levels "to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists." He said young African American males needed greater encouragement in the face of negative stereotypes that many blacks believe was at the root of the shooting death.

Martin, 17, was fatally shot on the rainy night of February 26, 2012 during an altercation with the 29-year-old Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida.

Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense and his team did not specifically invoke the "stand your ground" law in its arguments. A jury of six women, all but one white, cleared him of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

Critics of last week's verdict argue that Zimmerman racially profiled the youth - who had no criminal record - and was able to kill him with impunity because of a biased criminal justice system.

But Zimmerman - who has a white father and a Peruvian mother - has insisted race was not a factor in the incident.