In an interview in 2001 with an African-American oral history project, The History Makers, then-State Senator Barack Obama recalled: “I was a thug…for a big part of my growing up.” He added: “I got into fights. I drank and did–and consumed substances that weren’t always legal.” He also said his behavior “didn’t have a vicious edge,” that it was “self-destructive,” but was not “violent” or “directed negatively towards other people.” Obama has told similar stories elsewhere, but this interview is largely unknown.
Last week, President Barack Obama drew parallels between his own life and that of the late Trayvon Martin, arguing that both were victims of racial profiling: “Trayvon could have been me,” he said. That, in turn, prompted conservative pundits to note that Trayvon Martin had, like the young Barack Obama, used marijuana, a fact that emerged during the trial of George Zimmerman in relation to Martin’s death.
Judge Debra Nelson excluded much additional evidence about Martin’s character, including evidence that he had been involved in fights and that he had been suspended from school shortly before his death.
Obama’s 2001 remark might suggest that the parallels between the two were closer than mere color would suggest. However, Obama’s insistence that his behavior was not “violent” also points to a possible, crucial distinction–and one that was central to Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, which relied on evidence that Martin had been on top of him, beating him severely into the ground while Zimmerman cried for help.
Both the prosecution and defense insisted that race was not central to the case, and no evidence indicated that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin on the night of their fatal encounter.
The full video and text of the 2001 interview are available on thehistorymakers.com to account holders for a $30.00 per month subscription fee.