Jun 3, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Obama praises young protesters, urges mayors to pursue police reforms

Former President Barack Obama called on all mayors to review their use-of-force policies and commit to policing reform in a virtual town hall Wednesday hosted by the Obama Foundation's My Brothers Keepers Alliance.

Why it matters: Obama has addressed the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed on social media and in a Medium post, but this was his first time speaking about the past week's events on camera. His voice will add weight to the growing pressure on local, state and federal officials to pursue policing reforms.

  • "As tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult, and scary and uncertain as they have been, they've also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends," Obama said.
  • "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."

The big picture: Obama praised young people — specifically young people of color — for taking to the streets. He also commended those in law enforcement who want to see policing reforms in the U.S, and urged people to vote as well as participate in demonstrations: "This is not an either/or."

  • "Part of what's made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have been 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," Obama said.
  • "Dr. King was a young man when he got involved. Cesar Chavez was a young man. Malcolm X was a young man," Obama added, rattling off a number of other examples of young movement leaders.
“You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years."
— Barack Obama to young people of color

Obama compared the events and protests of the past few weeks to the chaos of the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement. "I know enough about that history to say there is something different," he said. He highlighted the diversity of the crowds, as well as the broad public support for protests that comes in spite of extensive media coverage of "a tiny minority" of protests that turned violent.

  • "There is a change in mindset that's taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better," Obama said.
  • He said that the change is not due to politicians or the media, but rather is "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 line to make a difference."

The bottom line: "[W]hen sometimes I feel despair, I just see what's happening with young people all across the country," Obama said. "And the talent and the voice and sophistication they're displaying and it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country is going to get better."

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