Former President Barack Obama weighed in on how systemic racism has been thrown into "high relief" during both the COVID-19 crisis which has disproportionately impacted communities of color and the nationwide protests amid tension between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve.
During a virtual town hall Wednesday, coming amidst civil unrest across the United States over the killing of another unarmed black man at the hands of police officers, Obama said that the tragedy of recent events, while "difficult and scary and uncertain," also represent "an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of (the) underlying trends" of systemic racism in the United States.
"They offer an opportunity for us to work together to tackle them, to take them on, to change America and make it live up to its highest ideals," he said. "Part of what’s made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized. Because historically, so much of the progress that we've made in our society has been because of young people. "
Speaking directly to young people of color he said "I want you to know that your lives matter. Your dreams matter."
The My Brother's Keeper "Anguish and Action: Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Violence" town hall comes as protesters have taken to the streets en masse across the country after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on Memorial Day after he was pinned down by Derek Chauvin, a white Minnesota police officer.
Chauvin was captured on cell phone video pinning his knee onto the back of Floyd's neck while he was on the ground; according to the arrest warrant documents, Chauvin kept his knee like that for eight minutes and 46 seconds, even as Floyd repeatedly said, "I can't breathe."
Chauvin has now been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. On Wednesday, the other three officers present at the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter. All four have been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department.
Floyd's death came on the heels of outrage over the deaths of two other black Americans, Breonna Taylor, 26, and Ahmaud Arbery, 25.
Taylor, a frontline worker, was shot and killed by a police officer in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13. The FBI in the city is investigating the case.
Arbery was shot and killed while he was jogging in Satilla Shores, Georgia, on Feb. 23. It took until May 7, after a cell phone video of the moment he was killed emerged, before any charges were brought in the case. Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested for felony murder and aggravated assault.
Obama published a piece on Medium on Monday addressing the protests nationwide following the death of Floyd -- and, specifically, how he thinks people can move forward to "sustain momentum to bring about real change."
"Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times," he wrote. "But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering."
Obama asked the nation's mayors and local elected officials, who are tasked with appointing most police chiefs in the country and negotiating with police unions, to take a pledge to review their "use of force policies with members of your community, and commit to report on planned reforms."
"We need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say this is a priority. This is a specific response," Obama said. Several mayors have already taken the pledge, according to Michael Smith, executive director of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, the organization within the Obama Foundation putting on the town hall.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey have already signed the pledge, Smith said.
"Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we've seen, take place at the local level. The reform has to take place in more than 19,000 American municipalities, more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions," Obama said. "So as activists and everyday citizens raise their voices, we need to be clear about where change is going to happen and how we can bring about that change."
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who, during his tenure in the Obama administration sought to implement reforms in approaches to law enforcement underscored that "one of the key things that people have to understand is that there's not a tension between justice, and having fair treatment, and public safety. You can keep people safe, and also have a better, more equitable criminal justice system."
"It was for me, the highlight of my time as attorney general, it was to be given the opportunity to get into communities to affect positive change, to bring and establish relationships between, again, people in law enforcement, people in communities of color," Holder said. "That was, I think, in some ways, you know, what I'm most proud of. And it laid, I think the foundation for future -- for future work. But I will always emphasize this -- that young people, young people... young people were critically involved in all of the work that we did starting at Ferguson and other parts of the country."
Despite some people seeking to compare this moment to the "riots and protests and assassinations and discord" in the 1960s, Obama said that what's happening now is different.
"You look at those protests, and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting... who felt moved to do something, because of the injustices that they had seen," he said. "That didn't exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition." Obama said there's a "change in mindset that's taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better." He said this is a "direct result" of the mobilization of young Americans "who put themselves out on the line to make a difference."
While the actions of police officers sparked the outrage and mass demonstrations, many members of law enforcement have stood in solidarity with the protesters, marching with them, taking a knee alongside them. Obama said he was "heartened" to see that because they are "a vital part of the conversation."
"Change is gonna require everybody's participation," he said.
And for those unsettled by the unrest, Obama had words of hope.
"The fact that people are paying attention, provides an opportunity to educate activate mobilize and act, and I hope that we are able to seize this moment," he said. "This country was founded on protest... and every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom and every expression of our deepest ideals has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable."