After a weekend full of Black Lives Matter protests and mounting anger over the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, President Barack Obama offered his advice for sustaining momentum to bring about real change in the fight against unequal justice. He noted that the protests currently being seen in cities across the country were representative of "a genuine and legitimate frustration" about long-standing failure to reform both police and the criminal justice system. But he also argued real change can't be brought about without merging protests with political actions like voting.
"As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change," Obama wrote in a personal essay published on Medium on Monday. "Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering."
While noting "the overwhelming majority" of protesters have been peaceful and deserve our respect and support, Obama urged what he called "the small minority of folks who've resorted to violence" to stop. Moreover, he urged protesters not to excuse or rationalize violence. "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 wrote.
The former president then turned to address those who have dismissed voting and other means of participating in electoral politics, arguing that only protests and direct action will bring about change, saying he couldn't disagree more.
"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 wrote.
But to achieve lasting change, to see new policies and practices be born, there has to be more than just protests. "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," Obama continued.
He urged activists and advocates to pay attention to their local and state elections, noting that, "the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels." He urged people to zero in on who they elect as their mayor and their county executives as those are the people who, more often than not, are given the power to appoint police chiefs and oversee agreements with police unions. Obama also urged those interested in seeing change to pay close attention to the candidates who run for district attorney and state attorney positions, as they will ultimately be the ones who decided when to bring forth charges of police misconduct.
"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," Obama wrote.
Ultimately, Obama encouraged a combination of both protests and political action. (Through the Obama Foundation, he shared a number of resources for those looking to get more involved.) "The bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics," he wrote. "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."
"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," his essay concluded. "Let’s get to work."