After nearly a week of protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, former President Barack Obama addressed the country in his first on-camera remarks about the national unrest during an Obama Foundation virtual town hall.
Obama began his address by encouraging young people to protest peacefully and vote in every election, including the November presidential race. He spoke directly to young people of color, protesters, and law enforcement in his opening remarks. To the protesters, he said, “When sometimes I feel despair, I just see what’s happening with young people all across the country and the talent and voice and sophistication they’re displaying, and it makes me feel optimistic and like this country is going to get better.”
To young people of color, he offered a message of hope and referenced his daughters Sasha and Malia Obama. “I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country, who…have witnessed too much violence and too much death and too often some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you. I want you to know that you matter, I know you know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter. When I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive. You should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what’s going to happen when you walk to the store or go for a jog or [are] driving down the street or looking at some birds in a park. And so I hope that you also feel hopeful even as you may feel angry because you have the power to make things better and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that’s got to change.”
And to law enforcement officials, he said, “I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals of reimagining policing because there are folks out there who took their oath to serve your communities to your countries [who] have a tough job, and I know you’re just as outraged about the tragedies in the recent weeks as are many of the protesters, so we’re grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve. I’ve been heartened to see those in law enforcement who recognize, ‘Let me march along with these protestors. Let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution,’ and have shown restraint and volunteered and engaged and listened because you’re a vital part of the conversation, and change is going to require everyone’s participation.”
Here, his full opening remarks:
Let me start by just acknowledging that we have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’m now, a lot older than Playon [Patrick, who gave the poetic opening to Obama’s town hall], I’m going to be 59 soon. And let me begin by acknowledging that although all of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty, disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others.
Most of all, the pain that’s been experienced by the families of George [Floyd] and Breonna [Taylor] and Ahmaud [Arbery] and Tony [McDade] and Sean [Reed], and too many others to mention, those that we thought about during that moment of silence. And to those families who have been directly affected by tragedy, please know that Michelle and I and the nation grieve with you, hold you in our prayers. We’re committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in the memory of your sons and daughters, and we can’t forget that even as we’re confronting the particular acts of violence that led to those losses, our nation and the world is still in the midst of a global pandemic that’s exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare system but also the disparate treatment and as consequence, the disparate impact that exists in our healthcare system, the unequal investment, the biases that have led to a disproportionate number of infections and loss of life in communities of color.
So in a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief. They are the outcomes not just of the immediate moments in time, but they’re the result of a long history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and institutionalized racism that too often had been the plague, the original sin of our society. And in some ways, as tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult and scary and uncertain as they’ve been, they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlining trends, and they offer an opportunity for us to all work together to tackle them, to take them off, to change America and make it live up to its highest ideals.
And part of what’s made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized because historically, so much of the progress that we’ve made in our society has been because of young people. Dr. King was a young man when he got involved. Cesar Chavez was a young man; Malcom X was a young man. The leaders of the feminist movement were young people. The leaders of union movements were young people. The leaders of the environmental movement in this country and the movement to make sure that the LGBT community finally had a voice and was represented were young people. And so when sometimes I feel despair, I just see what’s happening with young people all across the country and the talent and the voice and the sophistication that they’re displaying, and it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country’s going to get better.
Now, I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country, who as Playon just so eloquently described, have witnessed too much violence and too much death and too often some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you. I want you to know that you matter, I want you know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter. When I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive. You should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what’s going to happen when you walk to the store or go for a jog or [are] driving down the street or looking at some birds in a park. And so I hope that you also feel hopeful even as you may feel angry because you have the power to make things better, and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that’s got to change. You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years.
I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals of reimagining policing because there are folks out there who took their oath to serve your communities to your countries [who] have a tough job, and I know you’re just as outraged about the tragedies in the recent weeks as are many of the protesters, so we’re grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve. I’ve been heartened to see those in law enforcement who recognize, “Let me march along with these protestors. Let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution,” and have shown restraint and volunteered and engaged and listened because you’re a vital part of the conversation, and change is going to require everyone’s participation.
When I was in office, this was mentioned, I created a task force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of the tragic killing of Michael Brown. That task force, which included law enforcement and community leaders and activists, was charged to develop a very specific set of recommendations to strengthen public trust and foster better working relationships with law enforcement and communities that they’re supposed to protect, even as they’re continuing to promote effective crime reduction. And that report showcased a range of solutions and strategies that were proven and that were based on data and research to improve community policing and collect better data and reporting and identify and do something about implicit bias and how police were trained and reforms to use the force the police deploy in ways that increase safety rather than precipitate tragedy.
That report demonstrated something that’s critical for us today. Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we’ve seen take place at the local level. A reform has to take place in more than 19,000 American municipalities, more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. And so as activists and everyday citizens raise their voices, we need to be clear about where change is going to happen and how we can bring about that change.
It is mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police forces, and that determines police practices in local communities. It’s district attorneys and state attorneys that decide typically whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct, and those are all elected positions. And in some places, there are police community review boards with the power to monitor police conduct. Those oftentimes might be elected as well. The bottom line is, I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter on the internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not a either/or, this is a both/and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented and we can monitor and make sure we’re following up on.
So very quickly, let me just close with a couple of specific things. What can we do? Number 1: We know there are specific evidence-based reforms that if we put in place today would build trust, save lives, would not show an increase in crime. Those are included in the 21st Century Policing Task Force report. You can find it on Obama.org.
Number 2: A lot of mayors and local elected officials read and supported the task force report, but then there wasn’t enough follow up. So today I am urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms. What are the specific steps you can take? And I should add by the way that the original task force report was done several years ago. Since that time, we’ve actually collected data, in part because we implemented some of these reform ideas. So we now have more information and more data as to what works, and there are organizations like Campaign Zero and Color of Change and others that are out there highlighting what the data shows: what works, what doesn’t in terms of reducing incidents police misconduct and violence. Let’s go ahead and start implementing those. So we need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say this is a priority, this is a specific response.
Number 3: Every city in this country should be a My Brother’s Keeper community because we have 250 cities, counties, tribal nations who are working to reduce the barriers and expand opportunity for boys and young men of color through programs and policy reforms and public-private partnerships. So go to our website. Get working with that because it can make a difference.
Let me just close by saying this: I’ve heard some people say that you have a pandemic, then you have these protests. This reminds people of the ‘60s and the chaos and the discord and distrust throughout the country. I have to tell you, although I was very young when you had riots and protests and assassinations and discord back in the ‘60s, I know enough about that history to say there is something different here.
You look at those protests, and that was a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting and who felt moved to do something because of the injustices that they had seen. That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition, the fact that recent surveys have shown that despite some protests having been marred by the actions of some, a tiny minority that engaged in violence, that despite, as usual that got a lot of attention, a lot of focus, despite all that, a majority of Americans still think those protests were justified.
That wouldn’t have existed 30, 40, 50 years ago. There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better and that is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians, that’s not the result of spotlights in news articles, that’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country, who put themselves out on the line to make a difference. So I just have to say thank you to them for helping to bring about this moment and just make sure that we now follow through because at some point, attention moves away. At some point, protests start to dwindle in size. And it’s very important for us to take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country, and say, “Let’s use this to finally have an impact.” All right. Thank you everybody. Proud of you guys.
You can watch his speech and the town hall here:
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After Obama’s initial remarks, Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham began to moderate the town hall conversation. She asked former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about what he learned from the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and the grassroots activists from the area. He responded, “The thing that struck me the most…there were young people who were there and who were unbelievably impressive, who were in a lot of way directing the actions that you saw on the streets. You saw a community that was anguished, and there was a commonality with regard to the things that they were concerned about.”
He continued, “I also left with the notion that if we invested some time, if we invested some federal resources that we would be in a position using the leaders we met, young people who we met there, to make life in Ferguson better and then use that as an example of what was possible in the rest of the country.”
Echoing Obama’s words, Packnett Cunningham also said, “This is not about policy or protest, this is about policy and protest…Protest is actually what creates the pressure so that the policy can get passed…While we are dealing with radical imagination and reimagining what public safety can look like even beyond police in our communities, we also have to make sure that people are safe now.”
She then asked Holder to talk about his former role in addressing people’s safety and what he learned. He responded, “There’s not a tension between justice and having fair treatment and public safety. You can keep people safe and also have a better, more equitable criminal justice system…You can make things better in terms of community and police relationships and keep people safe at the same time. What we tried to do was come up with ways in which we could look at what we thought were the problems in the criminal justice system and in regard to how policing was done, address those, involve the communities in those efforts, engage law enforcement in those efforts, bring them together…understand how difficult it is to be a police officer, understand how communities of color have had to deal with unfair law enforcement practices over the years…It was through those kinds of meetings that we were able to formulate the policies that ultimately led to the 21st Century proposals…”
Packnett Cunningham then spoke with Minneapolis City Council Representative Phillipe Cunningham to ask about what’s currently happening on the ground in his city. He said, “Folks are mobilizing on a scale we’ve never seen before and a very diverse coalition of folks is emerging demanding justice, not only for George Floyd but justice in how the city of Minneapolis protects its residents. What we are seeing right now from folks on the ground in Minneapolis and across the country is generations of trauma and rage at the violence bestowed on the black community and the disinvestment of the black community by the state at every level of government.”
He also spoke about the history of policing, saying, “We know that the system of policing is founded on and rooted in white supremacy and a history of slave-catching. As we’re trying to do this work of reforming police culture and the institution of policing overall, we need to get serious about investing in new alternative systems of public safety that are rooted in justice and our community. We have a paradigm for this, it’s the public health approach to public safety. So thinking about violence as a disease that spreads, a contagious disease that spreads personally and inter-generationally.” In terms of what’s needed in Minneapolis right now, Cunningham said, “We need for folks to keep an eye on us and to be able to hold us accountable because there is some real momentum here.”
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, finished out the conversation, saying, “What we want to be able to do is translate the presence of this moment into the ability to actually change the rules. Sometimes those are the written rules of policy and other times those are the unwritten rules of culture.”
He later said, “Racism is like water pouring over a floor with holes in it—it will find the cracks. We constantly need to figure out how are we shoring up the systems that will have cracks in them and building new systems for the future.”
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