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Obama calls on mayors for action against systemic racism

A protest in Richardson, Texas, on Wednesday.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Former President Obama, weighing in amid the national wave of racial tension and protest against police brutality, urged the nation’s mayors Wednesday to review police use-of-force policies and make other reforms to combat racism.

Citing the “epic changes and events” of the last week, Obama said the protests in dozens of cities following the death of a black man at the hands of Minneapolis police could represent “an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened” to the problems of systemic racism.

“This is a moment — and we’ve had moments like this before — where people are paying attention,” Obama said at a virtual town hall on police reform hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit group he established to help young black men. “The fact that people are paying attention is an opportunity to educate and mobilize.”

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Obama was not the only former president to speak to the nation’s turmoil at a time when President Trump’s response — including incendiary tweets and calls for using military force against protesters — has been criticized as divisive.

George W. Bush issued a statement Tuesday mourning the death of George Floyd and criticizing efforts to silence protesters. Jimmy Carter issued a statement Wednesday that ended, “We need a government as good as its people, and we are better than this.”

Obama spoke the same day that the 2020 presidential campaign of Joe Biden, his former vice president, released an ad pointedly attacking Trump’s handling of the urban unrest and racial tensions. The ad drew footage from a speech Biden delivered in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Biden has called for police reforms including the establishment of a federal standard for use of force, at a time when Trump has been encouraging aggressive police action in the face of unrest.

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Obama’s speech on police reform was part of a broader effort by the former president to play an increasingly public role in policy debates and the Democrats’ critique of Trump.

In a commencement address last month, he took a thinly veiled swipe at Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In private comments to alumni of his administration that were quickly leaked, he lambasted Trump’s character and personality.

Obama was remarkably upbeat Wednesday given the three colliding crises that have had the biggest impact in minority communities — the disproportionate number of deaths and the related economic calamity spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as police violence.

He said he was encouraged by the activism of young people, noting that young Americans historically have led major labor, civil rights and environmental reform movements.

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“It makes me feel as if this country’s going to get better,” he said.

Obama also said he saw signs of social progress in the differences between the largely black civil rights protests of the 1960s and those of the last week, which showed far more racial diversity.

The current protests show a “far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting and who felt moved to do something,” he said. “That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition.”

Obama said that demonstrations were an important element of achieving police reform despite institutional resistance.

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“If you don’t have the political pressure to do it, they will resist,” he said.

He urged the nation’s mayors to commit to a review of policies governing use of force by their police, which has been spotlighted by the case of Floyd, the unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died after a police officer pinned him down by pressing his knee on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Obama also called for the end of chokeholds, saying: “That’s not what we do. You don’t need that to effectively restrain someone.”

After Obama spoke, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — who is considered a possible candidate for Biden’s running mate — said in a tweet that she accepted his challenge and would establish a commission to examine police force policies and recommend changes.


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