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Obama says Trayvon Martin case highlights difficult racial past in US

Barack Obama has spoken to reporters about the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin. The US president said that the case angered the African American community because of the country's difficult racial past.

An emotional Obama made an unscheduled appearance before the White House press Friday to offer his thoughts on the trial of George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty of murder for shooting the unarmed Martin, 17, during a confrontation last year.

The verdict handed down after the televised trial highlighted contentious racial issues in the country, including racial profiling. The prosecution had argued that Zimmerman, 29, chose to follow Martin because he was black and rejected Zimmerman's argument of self-defense.

"When you think about why, in the African community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think 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," the president said.

'Could have been me'

"You know, 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," 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," Obama said, adding that when he was younger he would hear people locking their car doors when he walked across the street.

"There are very few African-Americans who haven't had 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 happens often."

The president called on Americans to "do some soul-searching" and be more honest about their own prejudices, but also acknowledged that advances in racial equality have been made with each generation.

Questioning 'stand your ground'

Obama said that the case was handled properly in court, but questioned state and local laws like Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law.

"I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" Obama asked. "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? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."

Martin's parents welcomed the president's remarks, calling them "a beautiful tribute to our boy."

"Trayvon's life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come," they said in a statement.

Major civil rights protests in the wake of Zimmerman's verdict are planned for Saturday in more than 100 cities around the country. Martin's mother and father are expected to appear at rallies in New York City and Miami respectively. Obama warned that resulting violence would "dishonor" Martin's death.

dr/jm (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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