In a virtual roundtable Wednesday, former President Barack Obama praised the actions of young protesters, stressed the importance of local change and called on mayors to pledge to reform use-of-force policies.
Obama delivered his remarks ahead of a panel with Minneapolis City Council Director Phillipe Cunningham, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, MBK youth leader Playon Patrick, activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and Rashad Robinson, who leads the organization Color of Change.
During the panel, Cunningham, who represents north Minneapolis, called for an overhaul of how communities approach public safety.
"We have to get serious about investing in new alternative systems of public safety that are rooted in justice in our community," he said. "We have to start thinking about … what would it look like for us to not need police? And then work backwards from there."
Obama began his speech by praising the swift mobilization of protests led by young people.
"When sometimes I feel despair, I just see what's happening with young people all across the country, and the talent, and the voice, and the sophistication they're displaying, and it makes me optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country is going to get better," he said. "I hope you can feel hopeful even as you feel angry, because you have the power to make things better ... and you've communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful as anything I've seen in recent years."
As some draw parallels to the protests of the 1960s, he said, he sees today's protests as more impactful because of the wider representation of people participating, creating a "great recognition that we can do better."
"I know enough about that history to say that there is something different here," he said. "That was a far more representative cross section of America out in the streets, peacefully protesting, and who felt moved to do something because of the injustices they had seen. That didn't exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition."
He emphasized that change starts at a local level, encouraging people to vote in local and national elections.
"To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented and we can be sure we're following up on," he said.
He referred to his 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which outlined various strategies for improving police accountability and community trust. He asked mayors to sign a pledge on his website to work with communities to reform their police departments. He also asked mayors, county executives and tribal leaders to register their community as part of the My Brother's Keeper alliance, which works to address racial opportunity gaps.
"I'm urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms. What are the specific steps you can take?"
Here's a recap of what former presidents have said so far:
Former President George W. Bush:
"Laura and I are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country. Yet we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures – and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths."
Former President Bill Clinton:
"No one deserves to die the way George Floyd did. And the truth is, if you’re white in America, the chances are you won’t."
Former President Jimmy Carter:
"In my 1971 inaugural address as Georgia’s governor, I said: 'The time for racial discrimination is over.' With great sorrow and disappointment, I repeat those words today, nearly five decades later."
George and Barbara Bush Foundation:
The foundation released its first statement appearing to address current national unrest Wednesday