Washington — Former President Barack Obama said Monday that nationwide unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis could prove to be a “real turning point” in efforts to reform policing and the criminal justice system if demonstrations lead to increased participation in state and local elections.
In an essay on Medium, Mr. Obama wrote that the protests “represent a genuine and legitimate frustration” and hailed demonstrators who are marching peacefully, saying they “deserve our respect and support.”
He also condemned the “small minority” of demonstrators who have resorted to violence, saying they’re “putting innocent people at risk” and hurting the very communities they are hoping to improve.
“I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back,” the former president wrote. “So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. 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.”
Mr. Obama said the protests must be met with political action on the state and local level in order to secure the types of reforms to police departments and prosecutors’ offices the demonstrators are seeking.
“When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And 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,” he wrote. “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”
The former president said it “makes no sense” that turnout in local elections is “usually pitifully low, especially among young people,” given the influence local officials have over policing and criminal justice policies. “We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform,” he said.
Mr. Obama said local activists should make concrete demands of leaders in order to hold them accountable for their actions. “[T]he more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away,” he wrote. He said his foundation has created a website with more information and tools for taking action.
Mr. Obama concluded the essay by saying he’s hopeful that the mass demonstrations can lead to change across the country.
“I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life,” he wrote. “But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. 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.”
The essay marked the second time the 44th president has commented publicly since Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck one week ago. In a statement on Friday, as protests began to expand to dozens of cities across the country, Mr. Obama said that “for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.'”