As one White House correspondent noted on Twitter, President Obama’s response to a question about the Trayvon Martin shooting was unusual in that he doesn’t usually respond to shouted questions from the press corps. Clearly, Obama wanted to talk about the incident after several days of debate over the killing of an unarmed teenager in Florida, and the lack of charges from local law enforcement:
I suspect that this part of Obama’s statement will rankle some:
Obama said Trayvon Martin’s death particularly resonated with him as an African-American parent.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said in brief remarks outside the White House.
I’ve already gotten e-mails claiming that Obama played the race card, but that’s been an important part of the context of this case all along. All things considered, Obama’s statement was rather restrained. He seems to have learned a lesson from the Henry Gates incident in 2009, to which Obama reacted by claiming that law enforcement officers “acted stupidly” in the same breath in which he said that he didn’t have all of the facts of the case. Instead, this time Obama restricted his commentary to noting how any American parent would want a full investigation of the incident, and praising Florida Governor Rick Scott for launching a task-force investigation of the incident.
The DoJ will probe the shooting, too, which Obama noted but which had already been announced. However, there is almost no chance that the federal government will have any opening, since George Zimmerman wasn’t an agent of the state or local government. That makes prosecuting Zimmerman under civil-rights legislation almost impossible, especially given the circumstances of the initial assault. Be sure to see the lengthy explanation of Florida’s self-defense laws in my earlier post to see why Zimmerman will probably face some sort of prosecution if the stated facts of the case are borne out, but that will come from the county or state level, not federal.
Meanwhile, the media leaped at the chance to compare Obama’s statement to the silence from Republican presidential candidates on the shooting. That’s a bit silly; even Obama took quite a while to comment on the case, and as Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes at Electronic Urban Report, for the same reasons:
Obama, as all sitting presidents, doesn’t take positions on controversial state issues, and that’s the key. They are state issues, and to interfere is to step into a political minefield that would do far more harm than good. It would violate the rigid separation of federal and state powers. It would open the floodgate for any and every individual and group that has a legal wrong, grievance, or injustice to expect, even demand, that the president speak out on their cause. While tens of thousands nationally and globally are rallying behind the demand for arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman, there are millions more that quietly and openly demand that Florida officials resists any rush to judgment about the Martin killing.
Presidential statements on a controversial issue will polarize, and fuel political backlash. This would certainly be the case if Obama utters a word about Martin. In fact, the Martin slaying is a near textbook example of the fury and passion that racial leaden cases and issues always stir. Martin is African-American, and his self-admitted killer is non-black. Obama is African-American and there’s rarely been a moment during his tenure in the White House that he hasn’t been relentlessly reminded of that. The one time that he gingerly ventured into the minefield on a racially charged local issue was his mild rebuke of the white officer that cuffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009. The reaction was instant and rabid. Polls after his mild rebuke showed that a majority of whites condemned Obama for backing Gates and, even more ominously, expressed big doubts about his policies.
The president relearned a bitter lesson. If you speak out on an issue that involves race, police authority, and local law and local matters you will pay a heavy political price for it. While presidents have routinely spoken out on the deaths of police officers, political initiatives in states, and other local issues, there is no implication or inference of political partisanship or interference in a state matter. Speaking out on a controversial racial issue, as Martin is, would have a direct political inference, namely that the president is taking sides. In an election year, this would have be even more problematic. The GOP presidential contenders would be quick to pounce and would lambaste Obama as playing the race card and inflaming passions. Or, more charitably, that he was butting into an issue that he has no authority over, and that this is yet another example of the White House’s over reach on local matters.
The Trayvon Martin shooting does raise questions about self-defense laws and carry permit legislation only if Zimmerman didn’t violate either of them in the shooting, which seems unlikely under the circumstances. Those, however, are state-level issues, not federal, so presidential candidates (and Presidents) aren’t under any requirement to share their thoughts.
Noting that he had taken some time to “assess the current episode,” West wrote: “The US Navy SEALS identified Osama Bin Laden within hours, while this young man laid on a morgue slab for three days. The shooter, Mr Zimmerman, should have been held in custody and certainly should not be walking free, still having a concealed weapons carry permit. From my reading, it seems this young man was pursued and there was no probable cause to engage him, certainly not pursue and shoot him….against the direction of the 911 responder.”
The congressman added: “Let’s all be appalled at this instance not because of race, but because a young American man has lost his life, seemingly, for no reason.”
The Florida lawmaker said that he had signed a letter supporting the Justice Department’s investigation but that he did not plan to attend protests in Florida “to shout and scream, because we need the responsible entities and agencies to handle this situation from this point without media bias or undue political influences.”
That went much farther than Obama did, although as a Representative elected from Florida, West has more political connection to what happens in the state.
Update: Mediate notes that Mitt Romney has made a statement today about the case, and Newt Gingrich did last night:
Shortly after President Obama spoke out for the first time on the killing of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney followed suit, issuing a statement, through a spokesperson, which read “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”
Romney’s statement was similar to comments made by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who told CNN’s Piers Morgan, last night, that “I think that Americans can recognize that while this is a tragedy, and it is a tragedy, that we’re going to relentlessly seek justice. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”