Former President Barack Obama today urged a combination of protest and political action, voting nationally and in state and local elections, and being as specific as possible in demand for change and action to combat racism in the wake of a national swell of anger that has swept cities across the nation over the past six days.
Writing in online publishing platform Medium, in a piece titled “How To Make This The Turning Point For Real Change,” the former president condemned looting and violence but said the waves of protests across the country over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ongoing problem of unequal justice “represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States.”
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“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.” What’s crucial now is understanding “how to sustain momentum to bring about real change” because “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 the most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels, he said.
“Yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. … [But] it’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. 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.”
“Finally, 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. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements,” he said. “Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.”
He ended with, “Let’s get to work!.”