WASHINGTON — In his first extended remarks on the civil unrest that has roiled the nation following the killing of unarmed civilian George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, President Obama sounded a cautiously optimistic note Wednesday, praising the protests that have gathered from Sunset Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue and reminding policymakers and elected officials that his own administration offered a plan for police reform.
In a virtual town hall, Obama said that this difficult moment in the nation’s history was an “incredible opportunity for people to be awakened” to the effects of racial injustice. Floyd was black, while the police officer charged with killing him is white. The latest death of an unarmed African-American followed several other instances of racial violence across the nation.
Without addressing instances of looting that marked some of the protests, the nation’s first black president and Chicago community activist encouraged constructive civil disobedience. “To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable,” Obama said, “but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”
The online conversation, titled “Anguish and Action,” was hosted by the Obama Foundation, the ex-president’s philanthropic foundation. It was part of an initiative Obama started while in the White House called My Brother’s Keeper, which was intended to address persistent issues facing young men of color. Other speakers included Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general and the first African-American to hold that position.
Speaking via digital link from what appeared to be a room in his private home, Obama sounded both pained and encouraged by the images that have dominated news coverage in recent days. He never mentioned President Trump by name, nor offered anything that could be construed as a criticism of his successor. But his sympathetic, measured tone was a stark contrast to Trump’s combative tweets and warnings about the use of military force.
Obama discounted comparisons between the unrest over Floyd’s killing and 1968, when protests followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arguing that a much broader segment of society was engaged in social disobedience today.
“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,” Obama said.
The former president, who was a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago before entering politics, said he was similarly encouraged by members of law enforcement who listened to or even sided with protesters.
Obama praised “the folks in law enforcement who share the goals of reimagining policing” to be more measured in the use of force. “I know that you’re just as outraged about the tragedies in recent weeks as are many of the protesters,” he added.
Obama noted that when he was president his administration had empaneled a task force on police reform. That task force published a report on proposed reforms for the nation’s 18,000 police departments. Among its recommendations was that law enforcement agencies should “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”
The report also urged police departments to house officers in the communities they police and to foster “positive nonenforcement interaction with police,” so that community members do not see police officers as a merely punitive force.
“You’re a vital part of the conversation,” Obama told law enforcement officers.
At one point, he directly addressed young people of color: “I want you to know that you matter,” he told them.