Former President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that he’d seen a “change in mindset that’s taking place” in the conversation around systemic racism and police killings of unarmed black Americans over the past week, as protests over the death of George Floyd have mushroomed around the globe.
“We have seen in the last several weeks, the last few months, the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Obama said at the outset of a virtual roundtable on police violence, nodding to the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and mass protests from coast to coast.
At the event, hosted by the Obama Foundation and My Brother's Keeper, the initiative Obama began in 2014 to expand opportunities for young black men, the former president pointed to the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on racial minorities, arguing that “although all of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty, disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others.”
“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,” Obama contended. But the former president repeatedly hailed the activism he’d seen by young people, lauding them for creating “a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years.”
Obama at times echoed his former vice president, Joe Biden, who this week said he felt that the disparate effects of the pandemic had helped remove the “blinders” from the eyes of a large swath of Americans who previously remained silent on issues of racial inequities.
“In some ways, as tragic and as difficult as these two weeks have been,” Obama said on Wednesday, “they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends. And they offer an opportunity for us to all work together to tackle them, to America and make it live up to its highest ideals.”
Obama’s comments came hours after Minnesota’s attorney general announced upgraded murder charges against Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer who pinned Floyd to the ground by a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes, as well as new charges against three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death.
While he made no mention of the latest developments in that case, they underscored Obama’s assertion that progress had been made, though he warned that much work remained to be done. But he also reiterated his pleas made earlier this week that in order to sustain the momentum gained by the events of the past week, activists needed to make their voices heard at the ballot box in addition to the streets.
“I've been hearing a little bit of chatter in the internet about voting versus protests,” he said, arguing that “most reforms” shown to reduce police violence take place at the local level. “This is not an 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 have to translate that into practical solutions to laws that can be implemented and we can monitor and make sure we’re following up on them.”
Obama repeatedly pointed to a 2015 report produced by his administration’s task force on “21st century policing” to be drawn upon for such “practical solutions,” though he was quick to point out that other groups had since built upon that document.
He implored every mayor across the country to immediately conduct a review of their police departments’ use of force policies “and commit to report on planned reforms." In the ensuing discussion, participants including former Attorney General Eric Holder and other leaders in the police reform movement, laid out eight specific reforms that “can’t wait” and don’t require a law from Congress or an executive order from the White House.
Obama also took a moment to applaud members of law enforcement who “share the goals of reimagining policing” and who are “just as outraged” over Floyd’s death as those protesting it are, even as he conceded that “changing culture” in police forces “is hard.”
Still, he urged listeners to “think of some of the people who have unequivocally spoken out about what happened in Minneapolis,” alluding to the near universal condemnation from those across the political spectrum, a critical mass that is not frequently reached for similar incidents.
Obama returned time after time to convey his encouragement by recent events. He dismissed the comparisons of the current moment to the upheaval during the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, arguing that “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.”
For one, he noted, the demographic makeup of the current protests is drastically more representative of the country as a whole. “That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition,” he said.
“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,” he continued. “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.”
The next challenge, Obama told the group, is to translate the energy of protesters into workable policy.
“This is a moment — and we’ve had moments like this before — where people are paying attention,” he told the group. “The fact that people are paying attention provides an opportunity to educate, activate, mobilize and act. And I hope that we are able to seize this moment.”