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Obama says ‘institutional role’ constrained his comments on Ferguson and Trayvon Martin cases while President

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Former President Barack Obama on Wednesday reflected on the frustration he had felt in office when his “institutional role” limited his ability to comment on federal investigations into the shooting deaths 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. But I followed the basic notion that the Justice Department was independent, I could not steer them,” Obama said during a virtual gathering with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Leadership Forum.

As President, Obama continued, “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 in terms of what happened. So you had institutional constraints.”

The shooting deaths of Martin and Brown during Obama’s time in office each propelled national conversations about race and society. Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. Two years later, Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson.

Zimmerman’s acquittal led to the start of #BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag and movement, while protests erupted around the country after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson.

“I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed,” Obama had said in 2014 as outrage flared nationwide over the killing of Brown. “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.”

More recently, the gruesome video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has prompted the kind of soul searching about the role of police in society and systemic racism in the criminal justice system — and the nation writ large — that many advocates have been urging for decades.

The former President added Wednesday that he “constantly struggled” with translating the passion and concern around some events — like the shootings of Martin and Brown — into political action.

“But what I’m proud of is that not only were we able to refashion how the Justice Department thought about these issues — coming in, looking at a jurisdiction like Ferguson and saying: ‘How do we use all the tools of the federal government to rethink what they’re doing and to hold them accountable?’ — but also to be able to use our convening power to gather and focus attention on what are the practical outcomes that can be implemented across the country.”

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