The former president convened a town hall to "use the momentum" of national protests to press mayors, police chiefs and other local office to act now on practical changes to use-of-force policies.

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
June 03, 2020 09:43 PM
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Former President Barack Obama spoke out live Wednesday for the first time since the start of the national unrest over the killing of George Floyd.

In what appeared to be unscripted remarks to a virtual town hall on policing reforms, Obama, who'd previously addressed the tragedy with written statements on social media, promised Floyd's grieving family and the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery "and too many others to mention"— that he and former First Lady Michelle Obama were with them for the long haul to effect change.

"Michelle and I — and the nation — grieve with you, we hold you in our prayers, and we're committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in memory of your sons and daughters," Obama said.

He led the video conference from the library of his home in a Washington, DC neighborhood just 2 miles from St. John's Episcopal Church, where the Trump administration used force Monday to clear protestors ahead of his widely denounced Bible-toting photo op there.

As hundreds of thousands of people across the United States and in cities around the world took to the streets for another day of marches and demonstrations against police violence against people of color, Obama used his remarks also to speak directly to America's police and law enforcement officers.

"You have a tough job and I know you're just as outraged about the tragedies of recent weeks as are many of the protestors. And so we're grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve," Obama said.

"I've been heartened to see those in law enforcement who [say] 'Let me march along with these protestors, let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution.'"

A memorial to George Floyd
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But perhaps the former president's most stirring message was for young black Americans who remind him of his own daughters. Using the language of the often divisive debate over "Black Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter," the father of two college-student daughters said to their peers:

"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 — 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. I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter. And when I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive. You should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what’s going to happen when you walk to the store, or go for a jog, or are driving down the street, or are just looking at some birds in a park."

RELATED VIDEO: Voices from Protests After George Floyd's Death: 'Our Skin Color Should Not Be Considered a Weapon'

That last part was a reference to the incident where a white woman called the police on Central Park birdwatcher Christian Cooper on May 25, the same day Floyd was killed.

Acknowledging their anger, Obama credited young people with helping "to make the entire country feel as if this is something that's got to change. You've created a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I've seen in recent years."

Through his My Brother's Keeper initiative at the Obama Foundation, the former president challenged mayors and other local officials to take immediate steps to reform use-of-force policing policies. "The problems and solutions are so painfully real. Chokeholds and strangleholds—just saying 'That's not what we do. You don't need that to effectively restrain someone'" would be a first step, Obama said. Among the other reforms he'd like to see are: requiring de-escalation first before use of force; a warning before pulling out a weapon; and, a duty of other officers to intervene in an improper use of force.

"We need to make sure we now do follow-through because, at some point, attention moves away ... protests start to dwindle in size," said Obama. "It's important for us to take the momentum that's been created and say, 'Let's use this.'"

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

•Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

•National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.