Obama says ‘institutional constraints’ impacted comments on Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown

He says he didn't want to "endanger their capacity to go in, investigate and potentially charge perpetrators."

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Former President Barack Obama is speaking out about what he called the resurgence of activism that began during his presidency, including the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a virtual gathering of the My Brother’s Keeper Leadership Forum, Obama said he was “wildly enthusiastic” about how activists and communities became ignited following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. He noted that he felt limited in how much he could comment on the cases due to the “institutional constraints” of his role as president.

Former President Barack Obama, speaking out about what he called the resurgence of activism that began during his presidency, said he was “wildly enthusiastic” about how activists and communities became ignited. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CARE)

“I did not in any way want to endanger their capacity to go in, investigate and potentially charge perpetrators, which meant that I could not come down or appear to come down decisively, in terms of guilt or innocence,” Obama said. “So you had institutional constraints.” He felt it was imperative to allow an independent Justice Department to conduct federal investigations without his influence.

Black Lives Matter began during Obama’s second term after the unsuccessful pursuit of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who shot the teen in February 2012. The high-profile case — which resulted in Zimmerman’s second degree murder and manslaughter trial, then subsequent acquittal — prompted Obama to comment on race and racial profiling from the White House briefing room in 2013.

He spoke for nearly 20 minutes about the decision, in which he said, in part, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

“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,” Obama said from the podium. “That includes me. 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.”

Read More: Marc Lamont Hill confronts race theory critic: ‘Name something you like about being white?’

Another guest for Wednesday’s My Brother’s Keeper Leadership Forum was Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka, who implemented reform in his city’s police department. In 2020, not one shot was fired by a Newark police officer.

In response to a question from the former president about balancing reform and violence prevention, Baraka said, “We have to change what our viewpoint is of public safety, and get people to understand that there’s more ways for us to reduce crime and violence. We can reduce crime and also reduce arrests, which means there’s no real causal relationship between arrests and a reduction of violence and crime.”

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