President Barack Obama shared his perspective on the protests that have gripped the nation for the last six days on Wednesday afternoon, issued a call to action for voters and mayors around the county, and talked about why he remains optimistic about America’s future.
The former president appeared via Zoom from his home, at the top of a video conference hosted by the Obama Foundation on the subject of reimagining policing. He was joined on the call by Brittany Packnett Cunningham, the co-founder of Campaign Zero, and his former Attorney General Eric Holder, among others. “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,” Obama said.
“There is a change in mindset that’s taking place,” Obama said, “A greater recognition that we can do better. And that is not a consequence of speeches by politicians… That’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people.”
He spoke directly to young men and women of color in America, who, Obama said, “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.” To them he said: “I want you to know that you matter, that your lives matter, that your dreams matter.”
He praised the young people who have marched in the streets of cities around the country the last week, noting that the most successful movements for social change have. “Dr. King was a young man when he got involved. Cesar Chavez was a young man. Malcolm X was a young man. The leaders of feminist movement were young people, the leaders of union movements, …the environmental movement and the [LGBT] movement,” Obama said. “Sometimes when I feel despair, I see what is happening with young people all across the country, and the talent, the voice, the sophistication that they are displaying and it makes me feel optimistic – it makes me feel as if this country is gonna get better.”
The former community organizer said he was also heartened by the diversity he has seen among demonstrators. “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,” Obama said. “That didn’t exist back in the 1960s – that kind of broad coalition.”
He urged those who are feeling moved to action to seize this moment to push for real change at the local level, adding that, “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.’”
To that end, Obama called on the mayors of cities across the country to review their police department’s use-of-force policies and “commit to report on planned reforms.” (Those interested in whether their mayor had already committed to reforms, Obama said, could check online.) And he reminded voters in cities around the country that they elect the mayors and the district attorneys and states attorneys in their hometowns and states – individuals who hold the power to effect real change in police departments.
“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,” Obama said. “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 also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”