Jun 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Barack and Michelle Obama call for activism beyond hashtags

 Former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle close the Obama Foundation Summit together

Michelle Obama and Barack Obama at the Illinois Institute of Technology last October. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Barack and Michelle Obama used separate online commencement addresses on Sunday to highlight the inequalities and prejudices brought into focus by the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests and urged graduates to vote for change.

Of note: The former president didn't mention his successor President Trump during his "Dear Class of 2020" YouTube address. But he didn't hold back in slamming what he called the "divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system" or on how social media can be used as "a tool to spread conflict, division and falsehoods, to bully people and promote hate."

"Whether it's widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system. Similarly, the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop, aren't simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are, they speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices in the broader criminal justice system."
ā€” Excerpt from former President Obama's speech

What he's saying: Barack Obama drew a distinctly different line on protesters to Trump, who has urged a tough, militarized response to unrest and whose tweet last month "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" was labeled by Twitter as being in violation of the company's rules on violence.

  • He said peaceful protests are "patriotic" because they "shine a light on injustice," raise public awareness and "make the folks in charge uncomfortable in a way that is healthy." "We're a nation that was founded on protest," he added.
  • The former president advised graduates that these uncertain times are a "wake-up call" and "an incredible opportunity for your generation."

What she's saying: Michele Obama said in her "Dear Class of 2020 address" that the protests triggered by the May 25 death in Minneapolis police custody are a "direct result of decades of unaddressed, prejudice and inequality."

  • "If you're spending a lot of time just hashtagging and posting right now, that's useful, especially during a pandemic," the former first lady said. "But it's only a beginning. Go further. Send all your friends a link to register to vote."

Go deeper: Obama on George Floyd's death: "This shouldn't be 'normal'"

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