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Obama urges Americans to make "real change" in wake of George Floyd's death

Obama urges reform amid protests
Obama urges reform amid protests over Floyd's death, as all four former presidents weigh in 02:35

Former President Barack Obama urged Americans on Wednesday to use the urgency of the George Floyd protests to spark "real change" in the United States. Mr. Obama's comments come after more than a week of demonstrations sparked by Floyd's death in Minneapolis. 

"Let me begin by acknowledging that although all of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others. Most of all, the pain that's been experienced by the families of George and Breonna, Ahmaud, and Tony and Dreasjon, and too many others to mention."

"In some ways as tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult and scary and uncertain as they've been, they've also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends," Mr. Obama said. "And they offer an opportunity for us to all work together to tackle, to take them on, to change America and make it live up to its highest ideals."

His remarks were part of a broader conversation about proposed reforms to the nation's law enforcement agencies, and how to improve trust between police and the communities they protect. 

A conversation with President Obama: Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Police Violence by Obama Foundation on YouTube

During his address, the former president offered a direct message to young people of color who have "witnessed too much violence and too much death," often at the hands of those tasked with protecting them.  

"I want you to know that you matter, I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter," he said. He added that he hopes that they feel hopeful even as they feel angry, because they "have the power to make things better and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that's got to change."

Mr. Obama also urged local leaders to take immediate action. 

"Today, I'm urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms," he said. 

The former president also acknowledged there are members of law enforcement who "share the goals of reimagining policing" because they "took their oath to serve" communities. He said they have a tough job and he knows they're "just as outraged by the tragedies in recent weeks" as the protesters. He expressed gratitude to what he described as the "vast majority" that protect and serve. 

The event, "Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Police Violence," was hosted by My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a program established by the Obama Foundation. It also included Mr. Obama's former attorney general Eric Holder Jr., executive director of Color of Change Rashad Robinson, activist and educator Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Minneapolis City Council member Phillips Cunningham.

While Wednesday's event marked the former president's first statements on camera addressing the protests, Mr. Obama wrote in a Medium post on Monday that the ongoing demonstrations "represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system" in the U.S. He also said the protests could "be a real turning point" for those efforts.

"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," Mr. Obama wrote. "But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels."

Earlier this week, former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush also addressed the death of George Floyd and widespread protests.

"Rosalynn and I are pained by the tragic racial injustices and consequent backlash across our nation in recent weeks. Our hearts are with the victims' families and all who feel hopeless in the face of pervasive racial discrimination and outright cruelty," Mr. Carter said in a statement. "We all must shine a spotlight on the immorality of racial discrimination. But violence, whether spontaneous or consciously incited, is not a solution."

"No one deserves to die the way George Floyd did," Mr. Clinton said in his own statement. "And the truth is, if you're white in America, the chances are you won't."

Mr. Bush said Tuesday that he and Laura Bush were "anguished" over George Floyd's death, adding that the tragedy, "in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society?"

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has publicly weighed in twice on current events. Last month, he headlined two national virtual commencement ceremonies, in which he made indirect, but pointed criticisms of Mr. Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

This will not be the only time the public will get to hear from the former president on camera this week. Mr. Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are both slated to participate in a "Dear Class of 2020" virtual graduation event on Saturday, June 6. 

Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.

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