Former president Barack Obama held a livestreamed town hall on Wednesday to address widespread civil unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis police custody.
Starting shortly after 5 p.m. ET and running about 20 minutes, Obama’s address was part of a town hall hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a program launched by the Obama Foundation in 2014 after the killing of Trayvon Martin. It included a panel with activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Minneapolis city council member Phillipe Cunningham, youth leader Playon Patrick, former attorney general Eric Holder, and Color of Change president Rashad Robinson.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s incendiary statement on Tuesday in which he threatened to deploy the U.S. military against protestors, followed by a staged photo op at an Episcopal church across from the White House, the stakes were high for Obama to provide a measure of leadership in his first live statement since Floyd’s death.
“Let me start by just acknowledging that we have seen—in the last several weeks, the last few months—the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Obama. “To those families who have been directly affected by tragedy, please know that Michelle and I and the nation grieve with you, hold you in our prayers. We’re committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in memory of your sons and daughters.”
Obama directly addressed COVID-19 early in his statement, noting that the pandemic “has exposed the vulnerabilities of our health care system but also the disparate treatment, and as a consequence the disparate impact, that exists in our health care system—the unequal investment, the biases that have led to a disproportionate number of infections and loss of life in communities of color.”
“I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country, who…have witnessed too much violence and too much death,” Obama said. “And too often some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you. I want you to know that you matter, that your lives matter, that your dreams matter…. You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years.”
Obama also expressed gratitude for “the vast majority” of law enforcement, shouting out “the folks in law enforcement that share the goal of reimagining policing.” He mentioned the task force he had created on 21st-century policing while in office and called upon “the mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs,” among other elected officials, to help bring about change. “I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter on the internet about voting versus protest,” said Obama. “This is not an either-or.”
Obama then turned to next steps, pointing to “specific evidence-based reforms” included in the 21st-Century Policing Task Force Report. He 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 also noted that “every city in this country should be a My Brother’s Keeper community.”
Obama addressed those likening today’s protests to those of the 1960s, saying, “You look at those protests [today], and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting, who felt moved to do something because of the injustices that they had seen. That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition: the fact that recent surveys have showed that despite some protests having been marred by the actions of a tiny minority that engaged in violence…despite all that, a majority of Americans still think those protests were justified. That wouldn’t have existed 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
“There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better,” noted Obama. “That’s 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 the line to make a difference. I just have to say thank you to them for helping to bring about this moment, and just make sure that we now follow through, because at some point, attention moves away and protests start to dwindle in size. It’s very important for us to take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country, and say, ‘Let’s use this to finally have an impact.’ ”