Barack Obama Offers Playbook for Creating Real Change: Protest Peacefully and Vote in All Elections

Culture

Former President Barack Obama returned to social media today to share tips on how to sustain momentum and create real change in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer. Obama shared a short article he wrote on Medium as Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality continue across the country.

Obama urged protesters to remain peaceful in their efforts and to vote in all elections. Doing both is critical to moving the country forward, he wrote.

Obama gave credit to the majority of peaceful demonstrators, writing, “The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation—something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood. On the other hand, 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. He continued, “I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So 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 also stressed that people need to vote in all election races. “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 often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities,” he started. “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.

“The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels,” he added. He detailed that those offices—mayors, country executives, district and state attorneys—do the most with appointing and disciplining police.

“Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people—which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes,” he wrote. “So the bottom line is this: 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.”

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He encouraged communities to have specific reforms in mind, noting the needs may be different for each place. “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.

Obama ended his post with a word of encouragement to those taking action. “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,” he 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. Let’s get to work.”

You can read his full post here. The Obama Foundation has also created a page of useful resources, which can be viewed here.

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