Barack Obama Calls for Optimism and Reform in Virtual Town Hall
"This country is going to get better."
Former President Barack Obama addressed the world today with a virtual town hall hosted by My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a program from the Obama Foundation. Acknowledging that times are tense with the continued protests being held across the globe and the looming presence of the coronavirus pandemic, Obama spoke frankly about the death of George Floyd, police violence, and stated that he intended to "[ensure] that this moment becomes one for real change." Though he addressed Floyd's death on his social media accounts and in an op-ed for Medium, today's town hall was the first time he addressed it on camera.
Obama invited former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, Minneapolis City Council Representative Phillipe Cunningham, and MBK Columbus Youth Leader Playon Patrick to the virtual talk, which was moderated by Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham.
"Let me start by just acknowledging that we have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything I've seen in my lifetime," Obama said during his appearance. "Let me begin by acknowledging that although all of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty, disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others. To those families that have been directly affected by tragedy, know that Michelle and I grieve with you, hold you in our prayers."
He went on to note that he was hopeful for the future, pointing out that activists are justified in their feelings, but reiterated that anyone looking for change needs to start in their local communities, and encouraged everyone to get out and vote.
"Part of what's made me so hopeful is that so many young people have been galvanized, activated, motivated, and mobilized," he said.
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, feminist leaders, LGBT community leaders, and environmental leaders were young people, Obama said, adding that the efforts of young people made him feel optimistic.
"This country is going to get better," he stated. "I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive."
Before he finished, he reiterated that police reform was necessary, but urged public officials to review their use of force policies in their communities and commit to reporting on planned reforms, asking for specific steps that can and will be taken.
"I hope that you also feel hopeful, even as you may feel anger. You've communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and transformative as anything I've seen in recent years. I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals," he said, addressing protestors. "We are grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve. Let me march along with these protestors, let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution. Change is going to require everybody's participation."
Obama continued, saying that although many have drawn parallels between current events and protests in the past, he sees a distinct difference.
"I've heard some people say that you have a pandemic, then you have these protests, this reminds people of the '60s and the chaos, discord, and distrust throughout the country," he said. "I have to tell you, although I was very young when you had riots and protests and assassinations and discord back in the '60s, I know enough about that history to say that there is something different. You look at those protests and you say that was a far more representative portion of America out there on the streets protesting."
President Obama concluded by saying that it will take work at every level, from politicians and their constituents, for real change to come about. Again, he emphasized that young people have the ability to be agents for change.
"There is a change in mindset that is taking place. A recognition that we can do better. That is not a consequence of speeches by politicians, results of spotlights in news articles. That's a direct result of the activities of organizing and engagement of young people across the country that put themselves on the line to make a difference," he said. "I just have to say thank you to them for helping bring about this moment; just make sure that we now follow through. At some point, attention moves away. At some point, protests start to dwindle in size. It's very important to take the momentum that's been created, as a society, as a country, and say, let's use this."