President Obama is playing a cynical and dangerous game with his comments in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The problem is not that Mr. Obama may feel that by acquitting Mr. Zimmerman the jury was saying race played no role. That is his prerogative. But it is a problem when the president, in introducing a national dialogue on race relations at this time, indelibly links Trayvon Martin’s death with race and thereby inserts himself in the middle of a concerted effort by some, who will simply not accept the jury’s verdict, to have Mr. Zimmerman indicted on federal anti-hate laws.
This is an unprecedented role for an American president and should worry all those who value the rule of law – especially those of us in the Jewish community – and see it as the foundation for their liberties. Moreover, the careful way the president structured his remarks indicates he was well aware of what he was doing.
In an unscheduled appearance at a White House press briefing last Friday, Mr. Obama read a handwritten statement and noted that the judge presiding over the Zimmerman case “conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments… [the jurors] were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict .”
But then he said: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago…. [I]t’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.”
He went on to say that 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” or “the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
“That,” the president dramatically added, “includes me.”
So the president spoke about George Zimmerman in racial terms without even mentioning his name. Yet it is hard to imagine that the president’s remarks – which carried the suggestion that the jury didn’t quite get it – won’t have an effect on Justice Department officials tasked with the question of whether to bring a federal indictment of Mr. Zimmerman.
If even the president of the United States is intimidated by the likes of Al Sharpton, what can we expect of Attorney General Eric Holder?
It is ironic that the federal civil rights laws that allow separate federal and state prosecutions for the same acts were never designed for cases like the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Separate legal tracks were established to address palpably deficient or discriminatory state proceedings – which is hardly an accurate description of the Zimmerman state prosecution.
It will be recalled that prosecutors were criticized for overreaching in their attempts to have Mr. Zimmerman found guilty of second-degree murder rather than the lesser charge of manslaughter. Moreover, the complete lack of evidence as to Mr. Zimmerman’s purported racism – a thorough investigation by the FBI failed to turn up any racist statements or behavior in Mr. Zimmerman’s past – showed that prosecutors were hardly in the tank for him.
If the president felt duty bound to put Trayvon Martin’s death in a broader context, he should have waited until after a decision was made and carried out concerning federal charges against Mr. Zimmerman. In the meantime, if he thought he should intervene at all, perhaps he should have weighed in on the side of the rule of law, not emotion.