Obama to Young Black Americans: "I Want You to Know That You Matter"

Erica Gonzales
Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

From Harper's BAZAAR

Barack Obama echoed the titular message of the Black Lives Matter movement while addressing the lives recently lost from racist acts of violence and police brutality—including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Sean Reade—and the protests they sparked.

"I want you to know that you matter, I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter," Obama said while addressing Black youth in America during his speech. He also tied in their experiences with his own family's. "And when I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters, Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive, and you should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what's going to happen when you walk to the store or go for a jog or are driving down the street or looking at some birds in a park."

The 44th president participated in a town hall on police violence with community leaders and activists today via Zoom as he responded to recent events. The event was arranged by the My Brother's Alliance, an Obama Foundation organization that supports boys and young men of color and their communities.

During his fifteen-minute statement, the former POTUS acknowledged the work of protesters and organizers, but also called for action from citizens and local leaders. To those wondering whether it's more impactful to vote or rally, Obama said both. "This is not an 'either, or' this is a 'both, and,'" he explained. "To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power are uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and we can monitor and make sure we're following up on."

He also urged every mayor in the U.S. "to review your use of force policies for members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms," and pointed to a mayoral pledge they can take to improve police protocol in their towns.

Later in the town hall, Obama also spoke with activist and organizer Britney Packnett Cunningham, about specific changes local governments can make to reduce police violence. The 8 Can't Wait campaign suggests changes like banning chokeholds, warning before shooting, and requiring comprehensive reporting.

Read President Obama's full speech below.

Good afternoon, everybody, all the participants on the panelists. 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 that I've seen in my lifetime. And I'm now a lot older [...] I’m going to be 59 soon.

And 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.

Most of all the pain that's been experienced by the families of George and Breonna, Ahmaud, Tony and Sean, and too many others to mention, those that we thought about during that moment silence. And to those families who've been directly affected by tragedy, please know that Michelle and I, and the nation, grieve with you, hold you in our prayers. We're committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in memory of your sons and daughters. And we can't forget, but even as we're confronting the particular acts of violence that led to those losses, our nation and the world is still in the midst of a global pandemic. That's exposed the vulnerabilities of our healthcare system, but also the disparate treatment, and as a consequence, the disparate impact that exists in our healthcare system. The unequal investment, the biases that have led to a disproportionate number of infections and loss of life in communities of color. So in a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks challenges and structural problems here in the United States that have been thrown into high relief.

They are the outcomes, not just of the immediate moments in time, but, they're the result of along history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, institutionalized racism too often have been the plague, this original sin of our society.

And in some ways, as tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult and scary and uncertain as they've been, they've also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends. And they offer an opportunity for us to all work together, to tackle them, to take them on, to change America and make it live up to its highest ideals.

And part of what's made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized. Because historically, so much of the progress that we've made in our society has been because of young people. Dr. King was a young man when he got involved, Cesar Chavez was a young man. Malcolm X was a young man. That the leaders of the feminist movement were young people. Leaders of union movements were young people. The leaders of the environmental movement in this country and the movement to make sure that the LGBT community finally had a voice and was represented where young people. And so when I 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 that they're displaying. And it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country is going to get better.

Now I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country, who, as Playon [Patrick] just so eloquently described, have witnessed too much violence and too much death. And too often, some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you. I want you to know that you matter, I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter. And when I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters, Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive and you should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what's going to happen when you walk to the store or go for a jog or are driving down the street or looking at some birds in a park.

And so I hope that you also feel how hopeful, even as you may feel angry, because you have the power to make things better and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that's got to change. You've communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I've seen in recent years.

I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals of re-imagining police, because there are folks out there who took their oath to serve your communities and your countries have a tough job. And I know you're just as outraged about tragedies in recent weeks as are many of the protesters. And so we're grateful for the vast majority of you protect and serve. I've been heartened to see those in law enforcement who recognize, "Let me March, along with these protesters, let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution," and who've shown restraint and volunteered and engaged and listened. Cause you're a vital part of the conversation and, and change is going to require everybody's participation.

Now when I was in office, as was mentioned, I created a task force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of tragic killing of Michael Brown, that task force, which included law enforcement and community leaders and activists was charged to develop a very specific set of recommendations to strengthen public trust and foster, better working relationships between law enforcement and communities that they're supposed to protect, even as they're continuing to promote effective crime reduction. And that report showcased a range of solutions and strategies that were proven or based on data and research to improve community policing and collect better data and reporting and identify and do something about implicit bias in how police were trained and reforms to use the force, the police deploy in ways that increase safety rather than precipitate tragedy. And that report demonstrated something that's critical for us today.

Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we've seen take place at the local level. Reform has to take place in more than 19,000 American municipalities, more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. And so, as activists and everyday citizens raise their voices, we need to be clear about where change is going to happen and how we can bring about that change. It is mayors and County executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements for police [officers], and that determines police practices in local communities. It's district attorneys and state's attorneys that decide typically whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. And those are all elected positions. And in some places there are police community review boards with the power to monitor police conduct. Those often times maybe elected as well. That the bottom line is, I've been hearing a little bit of chatter in the internet about voting versus protest; politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not an "either, or" this is a "both, and." To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power are uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and we can monitor and make sure we're following up on.

So very quick, let me just close with a couple of specific things. What can we do? Number one, we know there are specific evidence based reforms that if we put in place today would build trust, save lives would not show an increase in crime. Those are included in the 21st Century Policing Task Force Report. You can find it on Obama.org. Number two, a lot of mayors and local elected officials read and supported the task force report, but then there wasn't enough follow up. So today, I am urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies for members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms.

What are the specific steps you can take? And I should add, by the way, that the original task force report was done several years ago; since that time, we've actually collected data in part because we implemented some of these reform ideas. So we now have more information and more data as to what works. And there are organizations like Campaign Zero and Color of Change and others that are out there highlighting what the data shows, what works, what doesn't in terms of reducing incidents of police misconduct and violence. Let's go ahead and start implementing those. So we need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say, this is a priority. This is a specific response. Number three, every city in this country should be a My Brother's Keeper community because we have 250 cities, counties, tribal nations who are working to reduce the barriers and expand opportunity for boys and young men of color through programs and policy reforms, public-private partnerships. So go to our website, get working with that because it can make a difference.

And let me just close by saying this. 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 and the discord and distrust throughout the country. 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, there is something different here.

You look at those protests and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the streets, peacefully protesting, and who felt moved to do something because of the injustices that they had seen. That didn't exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition. The fact that recent surveys that showed that despite some protests having been marred by the actions of some, a tiny minority that engaged in violence, you know, as usual that got a lot of attention and a lot of focus, despite all that a majority of Americans still think those protests were justified. That wouldn't have existed 30, 40, 50 years ago. There is a change in mindset that's taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. That is not as a consequences speeches by politicians. That's not the result of spotlights in news articles. That's a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country who put themselves out on the line to make a difference. And so I just had to say, thank you to them for helping to bring about this moment and just make sure that we now follow through, because at some point, attention moves away. At some point, protests start to dwindle in size. And it's very important for us to take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country and say, let's used this to finally have an impact. All right. Thank you everybody. I'm proud of you guys. And, I know that, uh, we're going to be hearing from a bunch of people who have been on the front lines on this and know a lot more than I do about it. Proud of you.

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