Former US president Barack Obama on Monday condemned violence at protests following the death of George Floyd, and outlined how he believes the recent events could be a catalyst for reform in law enforcement and criminal justice.
In an essay titled “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change” published on the online platform Medium, Obama wrote that the way for demonstrators to spur reforms in policing and law enforcement is through peaceful “protest and politics.”
Noting that the “overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring” Obama said that “the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause.”
“Let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. 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 said.
The wave of unrest was triggered by the death of Floyd, a black man who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer. The angry demonstrations over the past week mark some of the most widespread racial unrest in the US since the 1960s as protesters have taken to the streets to decry killings of black people by police.
While most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, others have descended into violence, leaving neighborhoods in shambles, stores ransacked and cars burned, despite curfews around the country and the deployment of thousands of National Guard members in at least 15 states.
Obama urged participation in local elections as the way to bring about reform in police practices that are governed at the local and state level.
“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,” Obama said.
“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 said.
“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,” Obama concluded. “Let’s get to work.”
I wrote out some thoughts on how to make this moment a real turning point to bring about real change––and pulled together some resources to help young activists sustain the momentum by channeling their energy into concrete action. https://t.co/jEczrOeFdv
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 1, 2020
In Minneapolis, Floyd’s brother, Terrence, made an emotional plea at the site where Floyd was pinned to the pavement by the officer, Derek Chauvin.
The gathering was part rally and part impromptu eulogy as Terrence Floyd urged people to stop the violence and use their power at the ballot box.
“Let’s switch it up, y’all. Let’s switch it up. Do this peacefully, please,” Terrence Floyd said.
The crowd chanted, “What’s his name? George Floyd!” and “One down, three to go!” in reference to the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest.
Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, but protesters are demanding that his colleagues be prosecuted, too. All four were fired from the police force.
“If I’m not over here messing up my community, then what are you all doing?” Terrence Floyd said. “You all are doing nothing. Because that’s not going to bring my brother back at all.”
An autopsy commissioned for Floyd’s family found that he died of asphyxiation from neck and back compression, the family’s attorneys said Monday. That contradicts the official autopsy, which said he died from the effects of being restrained along with underlying health problems and potential intoxicants in his system. It found nothing “to support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.”
The second autopsy was done by a doctor who also examined the body of Eric Garner, a New York man who died in an officer’s chokehold six years ago.
While police in some areas tried to calm tensions by kneeling or marching in solidarity with protesters, officers elsewhere were accused of treating demonstrators with the same kind of heavy-handed tactics that contributed to the unrest in the first place.
At least 4,400 people have been arrested for offenses such as stealing, blocking highways and breaking curfew, according to a count by The Associated Press.
In a statement Friday Obama said Floyd’s death “Can’t be ‘normal.'”
“If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better,” he said, adding that Minnesota officials should investigate Floyd’s death and see to it that “that justice is ultimately done.”