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Obama Urges Protesters to Use Momentum to Participate in Local Politics

FILE - Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an Obama Foundation event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 13, 2019.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama said Americans protesting the death of George Floyd must use momentum from the demonstrations to achieve real change by participating in local politics.

“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal and justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change,” Obama wrote in an article published Monday on the website Medium.

“I couldn’t disagree more,” he said.

Obama said, “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.”

While the former president argued that it is important to elect a president, Congress and federal judiciary that recognize the “ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society,” he said, “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”

He noted that voter turnout in local races is usually “pitifully low, especially among young people” which, he said, “makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues.”

Police use pepper spray against protesters in Portland, Oregon, May 31, 2020, in this still image taken from video obtained by Reuters.
Police use pepper spray against protesters in Portland, Oregon, May 31, 2020, in this still image taken from video obtained by Reuters.

Obama criticized protesters who turn to violence, echoing other politicians.

Protests have spread across the country after the death of a black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis last week. Video footage shows a white officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes before he died. Many of the larger protests often begin peacefully but later turn into rioting.

In his article, Obama did not mention U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by some officials for his response to the demonstrations.

Trump has not made a major public statement to address the protests but has expressed sympathy for Floyd’s family and issued a series of tweets demanding a crackdown on protesters. One of his tweets, calling the Minneapolis protesters "thugs" and saying, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts" was flagged by Twitter for inciting violence.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden spoke to black community leaders in Delaware Monday, promising if elected to “deal with institutional racism” and to set up a police oversight body in his first 100 days in office.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called Monday for citizens to use this moment of unrest to push politicians to make changes. He called for a national ban on chokeholds and excessive force by police as well as independent investigations of police abuse.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday the latest cases of police brutality in Minneapolis and Louisville are "absolutely horrendous." He also urged protesters in both cities to remain peaceful, saying violence "is not helpful to anyone."