Former US President Barack Obama held a virtual town hall on Wednesday in support of anti-racism protests, signalling his increasing willingness to step into the political fray after years of staying largely on the sidelines.
Obama’s remarks at the event largely focused on how protesters who are outraged by the police killing of George Floyd and systemic racism in the US can channel that anger into policy changes.
“As activists and everyday citizens raise their voices, we need to be clear about where change is going to happen and how we can bring about that change,” he said during the livestreamed event that featured a number of other politicians and activists.
Addressing the recent “chatter on the internet” that encouraging people to vote won’t solve the complex injustices facing the Black community, Obama called for a different outlook.
“It is mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions, and that determines police practices in local communities,” he said. “It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide, typically, whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. And those are all elected positions.”
Fed-up Americans shouldn’t view their activism as a choice between two avenues, Obama urged. “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,” he said, then listed a number of things local leaders can do now to change how Black people are policed in their communities.
The mayors of San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, DC, have already vowed to take the actions Obama outlined.
Obama has spoken out multiple times in the last week in support of the protests following Floyd’s death ― a noted shift from when he left office in hopes of unifying Democrats instead of focusing on the heated issues within the party. He urged many of the same actions and offered similar support to protesters in a Medium post on Monday.
He’s joined by all three other living ex-presidents in striking a drastically different tone from President Donald Trump, who vowed on Monday to crack down on anti-racism protests with “thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”
That same day, Trump had police tear-gas peaceful protesters near the White House so he could be photographed holding the Bible in front of a church. Elsewhere across the country, police have also used tear gas, rubber bullets and other violent means of stopping protests, even when they’re peaceful.
Obama ended his address with a very different message to protesters and activists: “I’m proud of you guys.”