US President Barack Obama on Friday addressed the verdict in the case against George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Making a surprise appearance during a press briefing, Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
Obama did not cast doubt on the trial, saying the judge conducted it in a "professional manner" and the jury had spoken accordingly. "That's how our system works."
However, he did highlight the racial disparity seen in America's criminal justice system. He said, "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."
In his most candid remarks about race since his speech in 2008, Obama said, "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."
Obama said he was in talks with his advisors on steps to take to prevent incidents like the one last February when Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman.
Outlining three of the steps they have discussed, Obama suggested that one could be training law enforcement to reduce instances of racial bias and mistrust between the police and the communities they serve.
He said it would be "useful" to examine some state and local laws like Florida's "stand your ground" law to see if they maintain the peace or exacerbate confrontation. Obama asked, "If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?"
Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said Friday that he would be holding a hearing this fall on self-defense laws like Florida's "stand your ground."
Though he conceded it would be a long-term project, Obama said, "We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?" Speaking hypothetically, Obama asked, "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?"
The full transcript of Obama's remarks can be found here.
Protests were held around the country, when the Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty. Martin's mother, Sybrina Fultin, said she felt "shock, disgust" at the verdict.
One of the jurors, identified as B-37, said in a statement this week, "My prayers are with all those who have the influence and power to modify the laws that left me with no verdict option other than 'not guilty' in order to remain within the instructions."
African-American leaders and Martin's own parents lauded the president's decision to speak personally even though some politicians called it a risky move.
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin issued a statement that said they hoped their son's death would lead to greater discussions about race. That Obama identified with him was a "beautiful" tribute, they said.
Obama's remarks "started a conversation today that must be finished," the president of the National Urban League told CBS News.
"I think the president did exactly what was needed, and he did it in only a way he can," Marc Morial said.
Zimmerman's brother, Robert, encouraged the president to expand his words to include children of all races, Fox News reported.
“My concern is that … we do everything we can for children who are having difficulties — and I really see eye to eye with the president on that — difficulties in life,” Robert Zimmerman said.