Former president applauded peaceful protesters and suggested demonstrations could translate to ‘effective action’
Barack Obama has once again weighed in on the George Floyd protests gripping much of America and attracting global attention, suggesting the demonstrations could translate to “peaceful, sustained and effective action” to address structural racism.
He called for making “this moment a real turning point to bring about real change”, and also urged voters not to give up on the democratic system, but to participate in elections as a way to make progress.
In a new Medium post, the former president applauded the peaceful protesters who had marched in dozens of cities, large and small, coast to coast in the US in the week since the killing of Floyd, an African American man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis last Monday.
But Obama condemned those on the fringes who have engaged in violent behavior that turned resistance into riots, arson and looting in some places, especially over the weekend.
“The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation,” Obama said.
“On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk.”
Obama emphasized that the protests had to translate into policy that would help to prevent more deaths like Floyd’s.
“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time,” Obama said. “I couldn’t disagree more.”
He continued: “[E]ventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices – and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”
The advice from the two-term Democratic president was barely out in the public domain before news began trickling out about a conference call on Monday morning that the current White House occupant, Donald Trump, had with state governors, in which he urged them to crack down on unrest and said the escalation of protest was successful when the authorities were weak, adding “and most of you are weak”.
The president reportedly called on the governors to step up enforcement and told them: “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s article on Monday leads with a picture of a large wall mural of George Floyd, with many names of other victims of police killings, including Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown – and Eric Garner, whose dying words “I can’t breathe”, while in a police chokehold in New York in 2014, were repeated by Floyd as his neck was knelt on for almost nine minutes by the police and once again became both an angry and galvanizing cry at protests.
And in front of the mural, a little girl is holding a sign that says: “My daddy plays with me, my daddy reads to me, my daddy tucks me in at night, please don’t kill my daddy.”
Floyd was a father of a young girl and Obama has two daughters. The picture also shows many floral tributes and signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George Floyd”.
Obama wrote: “The waves of protests across the country 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.”
He continued: “Yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a US 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. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels” including mayors, county executives, district and state’s attorneys.
The former president expressed hope that that the current protests mark the beginning of a new chapter for the country, noting that “the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both.”
He concluded: “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.”