Former President Barack Obama on Monday offered advice to activists on how to turn the outrage over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer into meaningful reform, while condemning the violence and destruction that has grown out of the protests.
Obama, who worked as a community organizer in Chicago before running for elected office, published a blog post on Medium urging activists to reject feeling cynical about the importance of voting.
“The bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both,” Obama said.
The essay from President Donald Trump’s predecessor demonstrates a starkly different approach to the current president’s rhetoric in response to the crisis. Trump has opted to share his thoughts on Twitter, rather than in a written speech or an Oval Office address, and has mostly trained his focus on those committing violence and theft.
Massive protests sprang up across the country in the past week after Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, died in Minneapolis after being pinned to the ground by officer Derek Chauvin, who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Chauvin, whose conduct with Floyd was captured on video, was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter.
While the demonstrations were largely peaceful, violence and looting erupted in numerous cities over the weekend as groups of protesters clashed with law enforcement officers. At least 4,400 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, according to the Associated Press.
In his blog post, Obama said the protests represent “a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States.”
“The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation,” Obama said.
But the former president criticized “the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism” for “putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause.”
He urged Americans not to make excuses for the violence: “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”
Obama, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, argued that reforming police departments can come through the ballot box. He advocated for increased civic participation in state and local elections, and encouraged activists to craft specific demands to hold accountable leaders who might otherwise “offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual” once the protests have died down.
“Yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it,” Obama said. “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”
The protests have made Obama “hopeful” amid the fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.”