'We can do better:' Obama urges mayors to take lead on reforms after George Floyd's death

Maureen Groppe and Ledyard King, USA TODAY
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Former President Barack Obama urged the nation's cities Wednesday to examine their community policing policies and revise them if necessary to prevent a repeat of what happened in Minneapolis last week.

"Today, I am urging every mayor in this country to review your use-of-force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms," Obama said in a livestreamed discussion of police reform sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans that have triggered waves of protest around the country. "What are the specific steps you can take?”

In an hour-long town hall, Obama struck a tone of cautious optimism, saying he was heartened at the swift and broad response to Floyd's killing at the hands of the Minneapolis police though he added that far more change was needed.

"We don't have the capacity to eradicate 400 years of racism in one fell swoop. If we think this is a seismic shift, I hope people don't think nothing's going to happen once we figure this out," he said. But "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 the mindset that's taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better."

His town hall came a day after former President George W. Bush spoke out, saying in a written statement that he was “anguished” and calling it a “time for us to listen.”

Bush, like Obama, expressed support for the protesters, saying it’s a “strength” when they march for a better future.

The comments from both former presidents marked a contrast with those of President Donald Trump, who has been sharply critical of the protesters and has urged authorities to "dominate" the streets, including in a conference call with governors this week in which he accused them of being "weak" in their responses. Trump, who has described himself as a "law-and-order" president, has emphasized instances of looting and rioting, often failing to make a distinction between those actions and peaceful demonstrations.

Former presidents have traditionally kept in the shadows, allowing their predecessors to run the nation without being second guessed. But during his final White House news conference as president in 2017, Obama said he would speak out after leaving the office when “I think our core values may be at stake ... I put in that category, if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion."

Most of the changes needed, Obama said during Wednesday's discussion, have to take place at the local level. He said his administration compiled a number of reforms from a task force created after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many local officials supported the report, “but then there wasn’t enough policy.”

"Let's go ahead and start implementing those," he said. "We need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say this is a priority."

While urging action, Obama also sent a message of hope to Americans disturbed and disheartened by recent events, especially young people of color.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," he said, quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "We bend it. All of you have bent it over the last four, five, six, 10 years and we are seeing the fruits of those labors in the degree of awareness that is out there."

Obama, who was weighing in for the third time after Floyd's death, has been emphasizing the need to turn protests into policy. 

Participants included former Attorney General Eric Holder, civil rights leader Rashad Robinson, Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham and others.

"We are an incredibly progressive city," Cunningham said. "At the same time, we are also the city that has the most significant racial disparities between white and black folks in the entire country across every indicator of quality of life. So this has just been boiling under the surface."

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The discussion was put on by My Brother's Keeper Alliance, an initiative started by Obama after Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American teenager from Florida, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. The goal is breaking down barriers and expanding opportunities for boys and young men of color.

Former President Barack Obama.
Former President Barack Obama.

After Floyd's death, Obama called on a "new generation of activists" to channel the outrage.

"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," Obama wrote in an essay published Monday on Medium.

Obama also addressed Floyd's death in a statement shared on social media Friday.

During a virtual event for historically black colleges and universities last month, Obama criticized the United States' coronavirus response and said the crisis "spotlights the underlying inequalities" in the nation. He called the U.S. response an "absolute chaotic disaster" during a call about a week earlier with 3,000 people who served in his administration.

More: Phoenix's Jeri Williams is one of the nation's few black female police chiefs. She says George Floyd's death was 'disgustingly horrific.'

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd: Barack Obama hosts town hall on police reforms after death

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