Former President Barack Obama offered advice to demonstrators during a virtual town hall on Wednesday in his first on-camera remarks as growing unrest against police brutality continues across the country.
"To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable," Obama said. “But we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”
The event was organized by the Obama Foundation, which featured a discussion about nationwide police reform, in the wake of national unrest sparked in large part by the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
In previous speeches, Obama offered veiled condemnation of President Donald Trump’s administration for its response to the coronavirus outbreak but in this address offered counsel as protest continues across the nation amid the pandemic.
"I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country," he said. "I want you to know that you matter. I want you to know that your lives matter. That your dreams matter."
Obama said in his address that this moment is politically advantageous for protesters who are calling for widespread police reforms and large-scale institutional change, unlike similar moments of unrest in the nation’s history.
For instance, the former president said he rejected comparisons to the 1960s when the nation was at war overseas while the Civil Rights Movement was happening domestically amid police violence and the assassinations of political and community leaders.
“I know enough about that history to say there is something different here,” he said, noting that polls show a majority of Americans support the protests. “There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better.”
He added, “That’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country who put themselves out on the line to make a difference.”
While president, Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in December 2014 following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri prompted by the shooting of Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer.
The task force issued its final report, which called for more data on police shootings, among other issues, in May 2015. However, Obama said many police departments have been slow to adopt reforms and called on cities to enact policy changes. He said he also was “heartened” to see positive interactions between police and protesters, despite many violent clashes.
"We're grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve," he said. "I've been heartened to see those in law enforcement who've recognized, 'Let me march along with these protesters...I want to be part of the solution.”