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Obama says “institutional constraints” limited his comments on Trayvon Martin’s death

Barack Obama admitted that his comments on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were constrained because of his “institutional role.”

Barack Obama Getty Images

Barack Obama admitted he struggled to accurately convey his thoughts and passion regarding the killings of innocent, unarmed Black men during his presidency. During a virtual gathering with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Leadership Forum, the former president explained that he felt limited when discussing the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

“I went as far as I could just commenting on cases like Trayvon Martin or what was happening in Ferguson because as we discovered, not every president follows this, at least my successor didn’t,” he said. “But I followed the basic notion that the Justice Department was independent, I could not steer them.”

“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 continued. “So you had institutional constraints.”

In 2012, the beginning of Obama’s second term, Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. His death sparked a resurgence of activism via the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement that also sought justice when Brown was killed by Missouri police two years later.

As he responded to the ensuing outrage surrounding Martin’s shooting, he spoke with caution to ensure that his words were objective.

“I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed,” Obama said at the time. “Because although these are, you know, issues of local jurisdiction — you know, the DOJ works for me. And then when they’re conducting an investigation, I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.”

Despite the restrictions he faced in speech and the struggles he had with taking political action, Obama told attendees of the forum that he was proud of how his administration reshaped the Justice Department’s approach to discriminatory killings and other related problems.

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