Former U.S. president Barack Obama called on young people of colour to stay hopeful about their “power to make things better” amid ongoing protests against police violence that have erupted across the country.
Obama addressed protesters and police alike in opening a virtual town hall discussion hosted by the Obama Foundation on “reimaging policing” on Wednesday evening.
“I want you to know that you matter,” he said, addressing people of colour who he said have witnessed too much violence at the hands of police. “I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter.”
Then he addressed police officers: “I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals of re-imagining police. I know you’re just as outraged about tragedies in the recent weeks as are many protesters.”
The event brought together politicians and activists working in the police reform movement to discuss specific actions needed to “transform the system.”
The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd has prompted Trump’s predecessor to take an increasingly public role. Floyd was a Black man who died in Minnesota after a white police officer kneeled on his neck during an arrest for eight minutes.
“This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America,” Obama wrote last week in a statement on Floyd’s death expressing his concern about dealing with racial injustice at the confluence of a global pandemic. “It can’t be ‘normal.’”
Obama buckled down on policy Wednesday, calling for implementation of “specific evidence-based reforms” outlined in a report by a policing task force he mandated during his time as president.
“We need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say this is a priority, this is a specific response,” he said.
Obama spent a considerable amount of time addressing the rise in activism that has gripped the United States in the wake of Floyd’s death, and highlighted the dualities of protesting and voting.
“This is not an either-or — this is both and,” he said ahead of the November election. He also praised the work of activists, calling the “change in mindset that’s taking place” a direct consequence of their work. But he warned that at some point, protests start to “dwindle.”
“To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable,” he said. “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.”
Obama’s presidency saw its share of police violence against Black Americans. The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 resulted in months of protests against the increasing militarization of police in the U.S.
The current protests have drawn comparisons to civil unrest in the ’60s, but Obama said he knows enough about that history to say “there is something different here.”
“You look at [these] 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,” he said. “That didn’t exist back in the 1960s.”
“To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable.”
As demonstrations have escalated across the U.S., so has police brutality. Officers have been filmed attacking citizens with tear gas and rubber bullets and arresting journalists.
Obama urged young people of colour to continue on with their activism even as they face increasing violence from the “folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting [them.]”
“You have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that’s got to change,” he said. “You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years.”
Obama’s message — and that of three other living ex-presidents — is a stark contrast to U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to the unrest. Trump vowed on Monday to crack down on anti-racism protests with “thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”
Obama ended his address with a very different message to protesters and activists: “I’m proud of you guys.”
With files from HuffPost U.S.