After releasing a statement on the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, former President Barack Obama on Monday wrote a more lengthy statement on the role of protest in catalyzing political change.
“The bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics,” he wrote on Medium. “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.”
Obama first spoke out Friday, urging Americans “to work together to create ‘a new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
Over the weekend, protests grew in cities across the country, with police mobilizing and often violently intervening and arresting scores of protesters and journalists, spawning renewed calls for the demilitarization of and systemic reform of police.
“The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s only in response to protest that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities,” Obama wrote Monday. “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.”
Obama, who began his career as a community organizer in Chicago, recommended that protesters and organizers calling for police reform make specific demands in order to more readily hold leaders accountable, and tailor those demands to local institutions.
“The more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away,” he wrote.
He also emphasized voting not only on the national level but in state and local races where elected leaders are directly responsible for police policies, such as mayors, county executives, state attorneys general, district and state’s attorneys, and in some communities, police review boards.
“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,” Obama wrote. “But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.