President Obama: 'Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me'

The president addresses nation's frustration over George Zimmerman acquittal.
3:00 | 07/19/13

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Transcript for President Obama: 'Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me'
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- I'm -- Hernandez and an ABC news digital special report President Obama has made a surprise appearance at the White House briefing room he has started. To talk about the -- -- on Martin case let's listen. Well how I want to come out here. First of all tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions. And who is very much looking -- of the session. Second thing is -- want to let you know that. Over the next couple weeks they're -- obviously be a whole range of issues immigration economics -- -- -- -- -- A -- press conference. To address -- questions. The reason I actually want to come out today. Is not to take questions but. To speak to an issue that officers got a lot of professional of course last week the issue will be for about -- I gave it preliminary statement right after the -- on Sunday. But. Watching the debate over the course of the last week. It might be useful for me to expand -- possible. First of all. I want to make sure that. Once again. I send my thoughts and prayers swells -- to the families. A trailer on mark. 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 us. It's remarkable how -- panels -- The second. -- a lot of serious to reiterate what I said on Sunday which is there's going to be a lot of arguments about the -- legal issues in the case. I'll let. All the legal analysts. And Talking Heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial of -- professional manner. The prosecution and the defense. Made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed. Bad. In -- in a case. Such as this reasonable doubt was relevant. And they rendered a verdict. And once the jury -- and that's our system works. But I didn't want to just talk a little bit about contacts. And how people responded to it and and how people are feeling. You know. When veteran Omar was first shot. I said that this could have been much sought. Another way of saying that is a -- on market could have been me. 35 years ago. And when you think about why in the African American community at -- 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 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 -- shopping and department -- That includes me. There for very very few African American men -- every experience. Walking across the street and hearing. The -- click on the doors of cars. That happens. To me at least before it was senator. They're very few African Americans who have never experience are getting on elevator and a woman clutching her first. Nervously. And holding her breath. Until -- just to get up. That. Happens. -- And I don't want to exaggerate this but. Both sets of experiences in form. How -- -- American community interprets. What happened. 19 floor. And it's inescapable. For people. To bring those experiences -- The after -- communities also knowledgeable that. There is a history. Racial disparities in the application of work from -- -- Everything from the death penalty to enforcement. Of -- drug loss. And that ends up having an impact in terms of -- People interpret the case. Now this is in the savored every American community is and I need about the fact that. African American. Young men. Are disproportionately. Involved in criminal justice system. That -- are disproportionately. Both victims and perpetrators. Of violence. It's not to make excuses. For that fact although. White folks who interpret. The reasons for that in -- historical context they understand that some other. 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 -- acknowledged. Adds to the frustration. And the fact that. A lot after American boys are painted it -- broad brush. And the excuses given welder these statistics out -- that show that African American. Boys are more violent. And using that as an excuse. To them see. -- treated differently it. Causes pain. I think -- -- -- also not -- and understanding that statistically. Some electorate on -- was prior. Statistically more likely to be shot by. Appear there was by. Somebody else. So. So folks understand. The challenges that exists. For African American -- But they get frustrated I think if they feel that there's no context. -- in that context as 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. From top to bottom. Both the outcome. In the aftermath might have been different. Now. The question for me at least and and I think for a lot of folks -- Where we take this we. Learn some lessons from -- and -- move in a positive direction. I think it's understandable that. There have been demonstrations. And -- and protests and some of that stuff is just gonna have to work its way through as long as -- remains nonviolent. They foresee any violence then -- will remind folks that. That this honors the what happened -- -- mark and his family. But beyond. Protestor vigils question is -- some -- things that we might be able to do. I know that Eric Holder is is reviewing what happened. Down there but I think it's important for people -- have some clear expectations here traditionally these are issues. State and local government. The criminal code and law enforcement has traditionally done at the state and local levels not -- the federal it's. 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 -- my staff. So we're not rolling out some five point plan but some areas. -- I think all of us -- potentially focus. Number one precisely because. Law enforcement is often. -- determined that the state and local level. -- it be productive. For. The Justice Department governors mayors. To work -- law enforcement about training at the state and local levels. In order -- Reduce. The kind of -- trust. In the system that sometimes currently exists -- when I was in Illinois. -- past racial profiling legislation. And actually did just two simple things -- -- collected data on traffic stops. And the race of the person who was stopped but the other thing was that resource. -- training. Police departments. Across the state. On how to think about. Potential. Racial bias and ways to further professional lives what they were -- and initially the police departments across the state were resistant but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in -- fair straightforward way. That it would allow them to do their jobs better. And communities. Would have more confidence -- them. In turn be more helpful and in applying the law and obviously law -- got a very tough job. So that's one area where I think their a lot of resources and best practices that could be. Brought to bear if state and local governments. Are receptive and I think a lot of them would be and then let's figure out of the way -- restaurant. Push -- -- kind of -- Along the same lines I think -- be useful for us to examine. Some state and and local laws to see if it. If there are. Designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds altercations and confrontations and treasures 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 we're not used as defense in the case. On the other hand if we're sending a message. As a society and 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. Does that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security in order that we'd like to see. And for those who. Who resists that idea that we should. Think about something like these stand -- ground laws I just ask people to consider. If trim on Martin was an -- and armed. Could he have stood his ground on outside -- And do we actually think that. He would've been justified in shooting mr. Zimmerman. Who would follow -- in -- car because he felt threatened. And if the answer. To that question is at least ambiguous. That seems to me that we might want to examine -- parents lost. Number three and this is a long term project. We need to spend some time thinking about how -- we bolster and reinforce. Our American -- And this -- -- Michelle and I talked a lot of there'll -- a lot of kids out there who. Need help we're getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And just the more the we can do them. Give them a sense that. Their country cares about and values and is willing to invest in them. You know I'm not -- not -- about the prospects of some brand new federal program I'm not sure that that's what we're. Talking about it but I I do recognize that as president I've got some -- -- power and that there are a lot of good programs that are. Being done across the country on this front and for -- to -- -- -- -- together business leaders. Local elected officials clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how we. Doing a better job. Helping. Young African America -- Feel. That. Careful part of this society and that. And that. They've got pathways and avenues. To succeed. I think that would be. Pretty good outcome from what was obviously -- tragic situation we're gonna spend some time working on -- and thinking about them. And then finally. I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul search. The other news talk about who should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when. Politicians try to. Organize. Conversations. -- of being stilted and politicized and folks. Are locked into the positions rarity. On the other hand and -- -- and churches. Workplaces. There's a possibility that people are over more -- At least yes yourself your own questions about. -- -- ringing. As much bias out of myself as I can am -- judging people as much as I can based on. Not the color of their skin but the content of their character. That would. I think -- an appropriate. Exercise. In the wake of -- -- and let me just leave -- -- -- with a final thought that. As difficult and challenging us. 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. It seems to be making progress in. Changing attitudes when it comes to race mean we're post racial society doesn't mean that. Racism is eliminated. But you know what I talked -- Malia and Sasha. And I listen to their friends I see them interact. They're better than we are. For better than we worked on these issues. And that's true in every community that I visited all across the country. And so. There we have to be vigilant and we have to. Work on these issues and those of us and authority should be doing everything we -- encourage the batter -- murder nature as opposed to. Using. These episodes. -- divisions. But we should also. Have confidence that. Kids. These days I think you have more sense than. We did back then certainly more than our parents sister or grandparents and and that. Along this. Long difficult journey. -- we're. Becoming. A more perfect union. Not a perfect. But a more perfect. Thank you -- We now bring in ABC news political director Rick -- to talk about. What the president said Rick this is about almost a week after the verdict -- why now and -- that the president say today that is perhaps. More in depth are different than when he sent before this case. But -- -- this is an extraordinary moment totally unexpected largely unscripted from the look at it. This was the president of United States acting not just as president but also as the nation's most prominent black leader. Speaking to his personal concerns his personal views on race talking about it in on usually personal ways talking about how 35 years ago this could've -- him he -- been -- not. I have never since he's been president seen the president speak about race issues quite like this and in an open in a frank way. Trying to use a role is as a calmer in -- in addition to commander in chief and I think just sort of remind people as he said that each generation is getting a better there's more work to be done and -- this just didn't seem like a typical politician speak with a bunch of platitudes this was this was raw emotion and in a president who is known for. Cool -- collecting information from around -- -- -- and not reacting -- took. The better part of a week almost entirely a week to come out and address and in this way and I think do it in a in a wait it's gonna make us talk and think about -- incident a different light. -- the president talked about before he was a senator people. Locking their car doors when he approached -- people being uncomfortable. When he got into an elevator with them these are really personal experiences and not something we normally hear from the president. That's right it's a rare. Window into how he thinks how he operates as a human being it actually is. -- shades of what he did before he -- a politician in his biography he talked in his autobiography he talked about I've been trying to -- in New York City not being able to do it he was acutely aware. Of his own race is biracial background the fact that society viewed him as a black man -- continues to view him as a black man. And I think he wanted to give voice to that today because clearly this is one of those issues this being viewed. -- in diametrically opposite ways by large segments of the population and the fact is that there's a Black America that saw this incident saw the verdict is something different than much of white America and I think the president feels a personal responsibility to do something about it certainly his supporters have been calling on him to do something like this something dramatic. Some it changes the conversation -- when it doesn't sound like a political speech. And it shows the moment here again byte -- total shock for all of us does that give you little window on these things usually the White House gives us some kind of -- hit the something big is happening this is literally a a moment's notice that he decided to stroll into what was a regularly scheduled news conference and deliver these comments. Yes and powerful comments at that at one point he said -- -- on -- were a white teen a white teen perhaps the outcome and aftermath. May have been different and -- very strong words. Very strong. And I think you just born a personal -- this was less. Him as the leader of a government. Then him as a human being who has watched these things and lived this life and and a father of two girls and I think that -- personal experiences that he brings to bear on this. Part of what makes this remarkable we saw the attorney general Eric Holder earlier in the week is also African American. Talking about in this direction it is not just a judicial issue it's not just what is the government gonna do in fact we're the president. Kind of dial back expectations are on -- federal civil rights case talking about that procedure by I think pretty skeptically about. The prospects for doing something. But that action median of the conversation that there should -- other discussions he talked about some of them in in re evaluating state and federal laws and in just fostering -- conversation that happens on this. And making sure that we are we're discussing in a way that's respectful of the views of everyone in the nation. Yet let's talk about that for a second he did seem to downplay. The prospect of federal charges in this case -- traditional -- matters for state and local law. That's right and I think he had to make that distinction in part because he. He leads the executive branch and there's going to be a lot of pressure on him to deliver this was truly such an -- of justice sent to deliver on that promises to do something dramatic from -- perspective of the Justice Department. Clearly that's a very hard thing to do the clearest signal we've gotten every step of the way is that there is unlikely to be. Federal prosecution federal charges against George -- as a result of this case. That doesn't make it -- -- important moment. You know I think there's a lot of talk over the last week about how much coverage there was of this trial how the nation seemed riveted over this out TV ratings drop -- over just a local a local trial a murder that kind of thing that happens every -- on the streets of the nation the president I think. Is making it very clear in the statement that he unit is something else he muted as an important inflection point in -- point. In which that he felt like there was at a power of the presidency that he felt the need to exert. When other important take away from the president's comments today. The federal -- may look into challenging. Things stand your ground laws that exist in places like floor. That's right and that that's a significant development and I think it's gonna be viewed as out -- a hostile act by many on the right who have backed those laws and tend to see them is important for self defense and Florida among other states and I think. The in the -- he described it today and saying that they encourage confrontation. I think was something we've curtain for a long time from critics of the law have the president saying that the president suggests thinks the federal government. Would be reexamining those laws looking to see whether they could stand up in court using this example. As a way to make that case I think it was something that we haven't heard before. It was interesting Rick after making these you know deeply personal and surprising statements he didn't take any questions as that. Sort of an example of the fine line he walks of this type of case. My guess is and I talk to him of the White House yet on it is that. He didn't want this to be the trip on Martin's press conference he didn't want to be there answering specifics about the doors and -- defense about. How the prosecutors conducted themselves whether the right charges remained that's his role here his role as -- lay out from 30000 feet as the president the United States his views on this. To chart a course for his government. And and my guess again is that he felt that the way to do that was doing in this way this wasn't billed as a major speech this wasn't. A lot of fanfare this wasn't a carefully picked backdrop this was the White House briefing room -- easiest way to reach that. The cameras in the screens of millions Americans across the country at a moment's notice you have that at your disposal sometimes use it. You talked about personal conversations that he and Michelle and had about. Strengthening in bolstering African American boys in particular in this country but is he really notice as someone who. Has taken on these civil rights issues. The personnel and he he's he's always had a tenuous relationship with black leaders there was a big question. Earlier this campaign whether he was even black enough particularly going against Hillary Clinton in the primaries when Bill Clinton famously called the first black president he's -- a lot of those bridges over time and I think he's got a long way toward establishing himself. In this way but keep in mind historical significance because you know what's in Barack Obama's mind he is the first black president that means something and -- moments like this people look to elected leaders black white or anything in between. As beacons as examples has -- three bullets set a new course. And I think he sees that personally as a father as a black man in America who is very cognizant of the history. And you can imagine there has been a lot of pressure on him to perhaps take up this issue in particular -- on -- we -- we mentioned it's been. About a week since the verdict what is up pressure been like on him. We know what's happened publicly I mean we've had. Civil rights leaders organizing rallies out there really -- or -- social media campaigns trying to get. More -- -- to focus on trade on what they see is an injustice on this to have the news the nation's first black president silent throughout and I think would have been difficult to maintain. You can always say he's monitoring news developments is a local story what have you but he clearly was coming under public pressure to do something. To say something as a result and again Michael backed out personal us -- because. This was not your typical politician speak. This wasn't about how ordering a review of the agency's this wasn't about looking at how the Justice Department policies handle something this was him speaking as a man as a black man as a. Like apparent gap but certainly not without controversy a couple of his comments we've talked about these that make -- conservatives chills he talked about. Having perhaps the federal government involvement. In police training and that we also talked about the stand -- -- aussies are not going to be popular. Across the -- No -- jutting judging from the dividend. The snap reaction on Twitter there's going to be a lot of harsh judgment. Level of the president for getting involved in this for for reigniting initiated its a lot of folks feel like is just last weekend story. You -- I think just people just still surprising digesting the back to the president weighed in in this highly charged debate in a highly personal life. All right Rick -- ABC news political director at thank you so much for are rushing to the -- -- caught by surprise here. Thanks for helping -- thank you you've been watching that president in an unexpected. And deeply personal response to the train on -- verdict mr. Obama at one point stating -- -- Martin couldn't be in -- 35 years ago president described the verdict as painful for the African American community but he also seem to downplay the possibility of federal charges in this case. Instead the president talked about reviewing this so called stand your ground laws that exist in states like Florida which allowed deadly force in self defense. The president waited almost a week to make these statements but in this surprise appearance at the White House briefing room today he delivered his most personal take on the case yet. Comment instantly killed a lot of reaction from Washington and around the nation we're gonna bring you the very latest on -- Richard check -- -- abcnews.com. Expect a full report on world news -- Hernandez -- -- thank you for watching this news Digital's. This has been a special group. Report from me.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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