Pressure had been building on President Obama for days to say something about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer, and on Friday the president finally did.
And almost as soon as he did, some people suspected him of a cynical election-year attempt to appeal to black voters, judging by the reaction by some on social media and conservative sites. Martin was African American, his killer of mixed white and Hispanic parentage.
Meanwhile, after Obama’s comments came the first public reactions to the Florida killing from Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. (Newt Gingrich spoke publicly about the case earlier in the week, telling CNN’s Piers Morgan: “We’re going to relentlessly seek justice” in the case.
In the White House Rose Garden Friday to announce his choice to head the World Bank, a reporter asked Obama for his reaction to Martin’s shooting and its aftermath.
Obama began his comments with a possible explanation for why he hadn’t said anything publicly earlier; that as head of the executive branch whose Justice Department has launched a probe into the shooting and local law enforcement, he had to tread carefully.
As Zerlina Maxwell noted in The Grio, however, there may well have been another reason for the president’s public silence until now. The White House hasn’t been especially expert in handling racial controversies like the Henry Louis Gates Jr. affair. And while Maxwell doesn’t mention it, there was the Shirley Sherrod embarrassment, too.
In any event, the nation’s first African American president put the tragedy in personal terms, as a parent and, especially, as one who happens to be black:
“I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened…
“… I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.
“But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
It remains to be seen whether Obama’s statement will be enough to salve the unhappiness of those African Americans upset that he didn’t make a public statement earlier or reach out to Martin’s parents with quite the speed he showed Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student verbally attacked by Rush Limbaugh.
“Sometimes its Imperative for Leaders to publicly state their positions on Important issues. This was one of those moments. I’m glad Pres. Obama publicly weighed (in) on the Trayvon Martin Racial Profiling Tragedy. Thank You Pres. Obama.”
In an interesting take, the Daily Caller, the conservative news site, accused Obama of making his statement only after Al Sharpton and members of the New Black Panther Party demanded he do so.
And some figured it was all about locking down his base. Daniel Soto (@DSviaAZ) tweeted:
“And now a word from Obama, who wants to further secure the black vote…#trayvon “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon” REALLY BRO?!?”
Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, was asked about the Martin case Friday morning during a campaign stop in Monroe, LA. He had hard words George Zimmerman, the 28-year old man who admits he shot the teenager, though he says it was in self defense, and for the local Florida officials’ handling (or mishandling, many would say) of the case.
SANTORUM: “Well, ‘Stand Your Ground’ is not doing what this man did. There’s a difference between ‘Stand Your Ground’ and doing what he did. And it’s a horrible case. It’s chilling to hear what happened, and of course the fact that law enforcement didn’t immediately go after and prosecute this case is another chilling example of horrible decisions made by people in this process.”
For his part, Romney issued a brief written statement through his campaign:
“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.”