After a weekend of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, former president Barack Obama penned a lengthy essay urging the country to “get to work” to enact criminal justice reform and address systemic racism.
“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,” Obama wrote in a post on Medium. “The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.”
Obama — who previously spoke out against Floyd’s death, saying treating American’s differently on the account of race “shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020” — also condemned the violence that has accompanied some of the protests.
“Let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it,” Obama wrote. “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.”
He pointed to elections as a force of change, denouncing the notion that voting won’t make a difference.
“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. 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 wrote.
He also emphasized the importance, not just of national elections, but those at the state and local level, where he says reforming police departments and the criminal justice system is most integral.
“It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions,” he wrote. “It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions.”
Obama pointed to low voter turnout, especially among young people, noting they have power in numbers to make a difference at the ballot box.
“The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable,” he wrote. “In fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities.”
He continued, “But eventually, 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.”
In all, Obama said he remains optimistic about the future, so long as we “channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action.”
“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 concluded. “But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful.”