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Obama on Trayvon Martin: That could've been me decades ago

WASHINGTON -- President Obama, in his first public comments about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting death, delivered on Friday some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House as he described what it...

WASHINGTON -- President Obama, in his first public comments about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting death, delivered on Friday some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House as he described what it's like to be a black man in America.

"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said in an unscheduled appearance before reporters at the White House. "It's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

Making the surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama reflected on his own experience with bias and racial profiling and sought to explain why the African-American community was outraged over the case.

"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," Obama said. "And 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, at least before I was a senator."

African Americans see the country's history of violence and discrimination against blacks as being ignored, he said, "and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."

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"Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," he said. "And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

Obama called on Americans to engage in "soul searching" as they ponder last Saturday's acquittal of George Zimmerman, 29, who shot Martin, 17, as he was walking home through a gated community in February 2012, and what "concrete steps" they might take to prevent other such deaths.

Obama had issued a statement last weekend that called on every American to undergo a period of "calm reflection" after the verdict was announced. But some African-Americans and civil rights groups have been clamoring for him to speak publicly about the case.

Before Friday, his only comment on the verdict had been a written statement in which he called Martin's death a tragedy.

But throughout the week, the president kept track of the national response to the verdict, particularly by black Americans, and had discussions with his family, aides said.

On Thursday, he told his senior advisers that he felt the country needed to hear from him -- not in an interview or speech, just a frank discussion of his views and experiences. He spoke from the podium in the White House briefing room with no notes.

Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that the Justice Department would continue its yearlong investigation into Martin's death and determine whether to file federal charges. Thousands of people have signed White House and NAACP petitions calling on the department to launch a civil rights investigation or file charges against Zimmerman.

Obama downplayed that possibility.

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"I think it's important for people to have some clear expectations here," he said. "Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels."

Obama, a lawyer, said he accepted the state jury's verdict.

"The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner," he said. "The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works," Obama said, adding that he sought only to add context to the conversation about the case.

The president spoke emotionally about Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed incredible grace and dignity.

Martin's parents released a statement following the remarks, saying, "President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."

Zimmerman's brother, Robert, also welcomed the president's remarks, telling Fox News that "the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of."

Obama said the White House was considering several federal responses, including a review of so-called "stand your ground" laws and initiatives aimed at supporting young, black men.

"And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that 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?"

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Seeking to inject a sense of hope into his otherwise somber remarks, the president said race relations in the United States have improved with each passing generation. He said his young daughters and their friends are "better than we were."

"We're becoming a more perfect union," he said. "Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."

The Associated Press and Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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