Barack Obama marks one year since George Floyd’s murder with roundtable, discusses ‘institutional constraints’ he faced as president in addressing Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown killings

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When former President Barack Obama reacted to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, killings that ignited racial justice protests during his tenure, he had to choose his words carefully, the former Chicagoan and nation’s first Black president said Wednesday in a virtual roundtable.

Speaking with the Black Lives Matter organization’s co-founder Alicia Garza and others to mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, the 44th president said he was limited in what he could do from the walls of the Oval Office during similar high-profile deaths.

“There were some frustrations for me in my institutional role,” Obama said. “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 — but I followed the basic notion that the Justice Department was independent. I could not steer them.”

Obama said he did not want to “endanger” the operations of then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who had opened federal civil rights investigations into Martin, a 17-year-old Black teen who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges, and Holder’s investigation later closed with “insufficient evidence.”

Holder also investigated the police killing of Brown, an 18-year-old Black man whose fatal shooting by a Ferguson officer in 2014 led to a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests that had begun with Martin’s death. Again, the criminal trial led to an acquittal, and the Justice Department later also declined to pursue charges.

Obama on Wednesday did not allude to either conclusion, but he offered a peek into the deliberations he grappled with as Americans took to the streets and cried out for justice.

“I could not come down, or appear to come down decisively, in terms of guilt or innocence in terms of what happened, so (I) had institutional constraints,” Obama said.

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The former president also said he regretted that the 2012 election, through which he won a second term, did not lead to Democrats reclaiming the U.S. House or control of certain statehouses and governorships, where he said many crucial criminal justice laws are hashed out.

“All the reform initiatives that we were coming up with and the ideas that had been generated, we weren’t able to translate into as bold a set of initiatives as I would have wanted because we just couldn’t get it through,” Obama said.

President Joe Biden also used that refrain during an October 2020 campaign debate against former President Donald Trump, saying, “We had a Republican Congress. That’s the answer,” after the incumbent pressed him on why he didn’t accomplish his campaign goals when he was Obama’s vice president.

During Wednesday’s roundtable, Obama also praised organizers such as Garcia for building a nationwide grassroots movement that began during his term but swelled following Floyd’s murder a year ago in Minneapolis. He shouted out to the accomplishments of activists pushing for criminal justice reform-minded state’s attorneys and district attorneys as well as for pressuring local governments to question “how do we analyze budgets and make very clear decisions about how money is spent.”

The latter point was a nod toward — but not an explicit endorsement of — the thousands of protesters who last year began calling for U.S. police department budgets to be reallocated to other social services. That position, earlier nicknamed the “defund police” movement, has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as unrealistic and dangerous for public safety. Obama too has said the “defund” slogan was counterproductive.

Benny Estrada, street outreach coordinator at the Chicago-based New Life Centers, told Obama he would like to see more community investment to propel his work’s mission. He also called on the city to fund its Office of Violence Prevention more.

“Investing in our communities, I think, is key, when we talk about things like mental health services in our neighborhood and how scarce they are, and the years of trauma that our families have gone through,” Estrada said.

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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