Former President Barack Obama on Wednesday made his first public remarks since George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck and he made a bite-size suggestion: the nation’s mayors should immediately ban choke- and strangleholds.
“Chokeholds and strangleholds, just saying, that’s not what we do. We don’t need that in order to effectively restrain someone,” Obama said.
A president doesn’t have the power to do that, but local officials who control police forces do. Erasing racism is hard, as we’ve seen this past week. Ending one brutal tactic — that’s doable.
As demonstrations are taking place across the nation, turning violent at times, Obama is once again confronted with an issue he grappled with — and could not solve — during his eight years in the White House: police misconduct and systemic racism.
“We don’t have the capacity to eradicate 400 years of racism in one fell swoop,” Obama said in a virtual town hall hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance titled “Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Police Violence.”
The alliance, now part of the Obama Foundation, is a spinoff of a program launched when Obama was in the White House. While Obama issued a statement after Floyd’s death, this forum was his first appearance.
Obama was very low key, neither mentioning President Donald Trump — nor admonishing the looters who opened a door for Trump to walk through and make his threats to call out the active military to patrol the nation’s cities.
Obama surfaced in this scripted forum at a time the nation is facing two crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown — with heavier losses in communities of color — and yet another death of an African American at the hands of a white police officer. The presidency of the country’s first black president was punctuated with these killings.
In the past few months, Obama said, the nation has seen “the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
A mission of the Obama Foundation is developing youth leadership, and speaking to an upcoming generation during at this time of civil unrest - compounded by the pandemic - was the reason Obama picked this venue.
He wanted, in these tough times, to offer an upbeat message.
“I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country who…have witnessed too much violence and too much debt. 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 daughter 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.”
That was a reference to the incident last month when a white woman in Central Park called police after a black man bird-watching asked her to leash her dog.
Said Obama, “stay hopeful. ...People are paying attention. And that doesn’t mean that everything will get solved, and so don’t get disheartened, because this is a marathon not a sprint. But the fact that people are paying attention provides an opportunity to educate, activate, mobilize and act. And I hope that we are able to seize this moment.”