The more I think about the Trayvon Martin case the more upset I get.
And the more I both reach for my pen, and believe that the President should make a public statement.
Over at Ta-Nehisi's spot I wrote a quick version of what that statement could look like. The President's statement can be calm, and above the fray. He doesn't have to state his distaste for Stand Your Ground. He doesn't have to bias a potential jury against George Zimmerman.
Now there are three arguments against Obama making a statement of any sort.
The strongest is that if Obama were to wade in, it's possible that any statement he makes could make Zimmerman's arrest unlikely. I'm not a lawyer, I'm a political scientist. So I can't respond here.
Another argument is that if Obama were to wade in, it'd create a Gatesian firestorm that would make things worse rather than better.
I didn't think Obama should've said anything about Gates. But where there was at least some ambiguity in the Gates case, there is no ambiguity here. And while the police department IS involved, they are involved indirectly rather than directly–Zimmerman wasn't a police officer, and in fact disobeyed the order of a police dispatcher.
But even if there were blowback here, I think that blowback would a) be smaller than people think and b) instructive.
I happened to visit a Florida gun club bulletin board (I'd link it but am typing on a deadline right now) to see what people were saying. As of yesterday there was only ONE person out of dozens who didn't think Zimmerman should be arrested. I'm assuming the club was all white, conservative, and NRA packed. If Obama were to give condolences to the parents I'm pretty sure that even the conservative reaction would be muted.
But if it DID happen, if there were blowback? It'd be incredibly instructive, because conservatives consistently express support for negative liberty (that is, freedom from undue harassment). If the Martin case is about ANYTHING it should be about negative liberty, and conservatives should rally around this. At the very least they shouldn't raise a stink about it. If they do, their actions become transparently hypocritical.
The third argument is that it isn't Obama's job…it's the job of the FBI/Justice Department.
First, the President has a number of responsibilities that are outlined explicitly, and then a number of responsibilities that are symbolic and NOT outlined explicitly. I think that the President has a symbolic responsibility to speak to and about pressing national issues even when he cannot (and in some cases SHOULD not) act on them directly. President Bush spoke about the Rodney King riots. President Clinton spoke about the Columbine murders. More recently President Obama called Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh viciously attacked her.
I believe the President has an obligation to speak here because this is a pressing national issue, one that affects black families the country over. But, and this is important, I believe the President took on that obligation the moment he felt obligated to figuratively come into my home and tell me how to parent my kids. The moment he decided he had the responsibility to talk about black fatherhood…he took on the responsibility to speak to tragedies like this.
Second, unless there are legal issues, we don't have to make this an either/or thing. It's possible for the President to speak to this issue AND give the proper agencies a chance to do their job.
The Fourth argument is related. "Let him work behind the scenes."
The problem here is that I can't see "behind the scenes." And "behind the scenes" doesn't expand our political imagination here. A presidential statement even implicitly critiquing the way black boys are unduly treated by society can go much farther in giving people concerned about this issue the space to organize around…than any set of "behind the scenes" actions. Symbolic actions create political opportunities. Just as inactions TRUNCATE them.
I've already gone a bit long. And my own kids await me. Would be VERY interested in your opinion here.