While speaking on the ongoing protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, former President Barack Obama urged “every mayor in this country to review your use-of-force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms.”
Obama highlighted how most of the needed reforms take place on the local level, while urging the nation to use current momentum drawn from the protests to drive effective change.
“We have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kind of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,“ Obama said.
“All of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty and disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others,” the president said, noting that the nation grieves with he family of Floyd, who died during an encounter with Minneapolis police on May 25.
The former president said he and the nation are grateful for members of law enforcement “who share dreams of reforming police.”
Obama reminded viewers of the forum, “As we’re confronting the particular act of violence that led to those losses, our nation and the world is still in the midst of a global pandemic that has exposed vulnerabilities of our health care system.”
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He also said younger individuals have a profound ability to create change, highlighting how noted civil rights leaders, as well as those of the forefront of other social causes throughout history, were younger people.
“Sometimes when I feel despair, I just see what’s happening with young people across the country... it makes me feel optimistic,” Obama said.
“You matter, your lives matter, your dreams matter,” the former president said. “I hope you also feel hopeful even though you may feel angry. You have the power to make things better. You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and transformative as anything I’ve seen in recent years.”
Obama is taking on an increasingly public role as the nation confronts a confluence of historic crises that has exposed deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities in America and reshaped the November election.
In doing so, Obama is signaling a willingness to sharply critique his successor, President Donald Trump, and fill what many Democrats see as a national leadership void. On Wednesday, he’ll hold a virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Aides said Obama will call for turning the protests over Floyd’s death into policy change and will urge specific reforms to ensure safer policing and increased trust between communities and law enforcement.
“We’re in a political season, but our country is also at an inflection point,” said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to Obama. “President Obama is not going to shy away from that dialogue simply because he’s not in office anymore.”
Obama was already beginning to emerge from political hibernation to endorse Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential bid when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the U.S., killing more than 100,000 people, and the economy began to crater. The crises scrambled the Biden campaign’s plans for how to begin deploying Obama as their chief surrogate ahead of the November election, but also gave the former president a clear opening to start publicly arguing what he has signaled to friends and associates privately for the past three years: that he does not believe Trump is up for the job.
Addressing graduates of historically black colleges and universities last month, Obama said the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.” And in a nationally televised broadcast celebrating graduating high school seniors, Obama said many “so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs,” do only what’s convenient and feels good.
Floyd’s death, however, has drawn a more visceral and personal reaction from the nation’s first black president. Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
In a lengthy written statement last week, Obama said that while he understood that millions of Americans were eager to “just get back to normal” when the pandemic abates, it shouldn’t be forgotten that normal life for people of color in the U.S. involves being treated differently on account of their race.
“This shouldn’t be 'normal' in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal,’" Obama wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.