On Wednesday evening, Barack Obama sought to give the sort of public address that Donald Trump has thus far failed to give: validating the concerns of protesters and offering them encouragement—while offering, controversially, an olive branch to law enforcement.
The remarks were part of the My Brother’s Keeper Virtual Town Hall titled “Reimagining Policing in the Continue Police Violence.” Also referred to as MBK, the organization is an Obama-era initiative aimed at developing and fostering the growth of black boys and young men. The event featured comments from the former president, as well as a panel discussion attended by civic leaders and activists from around the country.
There is the obvious: unlike the current occupant of the White House, Obama spoke in an optimistic and encouraging tone (and complete, coherent sentences!). The former community organizer praised the diligence and diversity of the protesters—notably drawing a line between peaceful and violent protests—and emphasized the need for political engagement.
It stood in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s remarks in the last week, but Obama’s optimistic tenor occasionally seemed at odds with the anger that has fueled the nationwide protests. In the last week, anti-police brutality activists have called for bigger, more transformational changes to policing in the U.S., and for more explicit condemnation of violent police forces that have arrested and brutalized peaceful protesters across the country.
Obama spoke early in the program, beginning by acknowledging the protests of the last week, calling them “the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
“Although all of us have been feeling pain, some folks have been feeling it more than others,” Obama continued, specifically citing the families of victims of police brutality and white vigilantism, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
“We’re committed to the fight for a more just nation in the memory of your sons and daughters,” he said.
He acknowledged that the protests were happening with a global pandemic in the backdrop, one that has disproportionately sickened and killed black people and other communities of color. Obama also directly linked the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 with systemic and historic injustices: listing enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, and other forms of institutionalized racism.
“As difficult and scary as [the last few weeks] have been, they’ve also been an incredible opportunity to people to be awakened to those problems,” Obama said, presenting the current moment as an opening to tackle them. He was particularly moved by the sight of so many young people participating in and leading the protests that have bloomed across the country, noting that many of America’s most substantive transformations—the civil rights movement, the ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights, the women’s rights movement, and the labor movement—were led by young leaders.
“It makes me feel optimistic,” Obama said.
He also took the time to specifically address “young men and women of color in this country,” telling them, “I want you to know that you matter, that your lives matter.”
He drew a comparison between young activists and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, emphasizing their “limitless potential...that deserves to flourish and thrive.”
But Obama also shied away from condemning police escalations during the protests, instead praising police who had “joined” the demonstrations—referring to instances when police had kneeled or marched with protesters.
“We’re grateful for the vast majority of you that protect and serve,” he said, adding that “change is going to require everybody’s participation.”
The conciliatory tone contrasts with many images circulating social media in the last week, showing police ramming their cars through crowds, spraying tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, or trapping hundreds of demonstrators—many of whom had been trying to practice social distancing as they protest—onto narrow sidewalks or byways.
But Obama clearly aimed to present himself as an even-handed, optimistic healer, bridging a yawning divide between law enforcement and the protesters demanding accountability from them. He stressed the need for political action and strategy, pointing repeatedly to the task force on policing established during his presidency. These remarks echoed his recent Medium blog, published on Monday, which stressed engaging politicians at the state and local level.
“I’ve been hearing a bit of chatter about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action,” he said. “This is not an either/or.”
“We both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable,” he said later, adding that mayors and county executives needed to make police reform a top priority.
Later, during a panel moderated by Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of Campaign Zero, and a former member of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, Obama pointed to eight specific reforms that local elected officials could enact now to decrease police brutality incidents. This suite of reforms, packaged as #8cantwait, includes banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring police to exercise de-escalation tactics, and mandating that officers have a duty to intervene when they see excessive force being used.
But as Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham noted, the political will in his ward has shifted to larger changes—namely, defunding the Minneapolis Police Department. Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, major city institutions have pulled out from their contracts with the city police, including the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis public school system.
Packnett Cunningham noted that the two paths—police reform and defunding departments—don’t “have to stand in competition with each other,” noting that the former is a “starting point” that can protect people in the short term while more substantive changes are fought for.
Still, Obama’s rosy view of a broad, diverse coalition of young voices peacefully engaging in protest and politics could seem out of step with decisions currently being made by police departments, mayors, and governors throughout the country. Just the night before, NBC Washington reported that a D.C. cop told people waiting in line at a polling site that they were in violation of a 7 p.m. curfew by waiting to vote.
While many have compared the turmoil of this moment to the protests of the ’60s, Obama said that this movement felt different. He pointed to people of all races and backgrounds taking to the streets—at one point holding up University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh’s recent participation in an anti-police brutality march in Ann Arbor as an example.
“That wouldn’t have existed 30 or 40 years ago,” said Obama.
He gave the credit to activists who had been working on the frontlines of the racial justice movement for years.
“You have unlikely participants because all of you have worked so hard to raise awareness,” he said. “That’s the progress that has been made. It doesn’t mean everything has been solved.”