(Reuters) – In his first live remarks on the unrest gripping dozens of U.S. cities, former President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged every American mayor to review their police department’s use-of-force policies in consultation with their communities.
The country’s first black president also struck a note of optimism, even as he acknowledged the despair and anger powering the protests since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck nine days ago.
“In some ways, as tragic as these last 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,” Obama, a Democrat, said via livestream from his home in Washington, D.C.
“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.”
He also directly addressed young Americans of color, telling them, “I want you to know that you matter, I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter.”
Obama’s speech offered a contrast in tone to the way his successor, Republican President Donald Trump, has responded to the protests, some of which have devolved into violence. Trump has threatened to deploy the U.S. military to quell demonstrations and told governors to get “tougher.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, former presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, issued statements that also adopted a more measured tone than Trump has.
Obama did not mention Trump on Wednesday, though he has criticized the president’s actions more frequently in recent weeks.
Wednesday’s address was part of a discussion hosted by My Brother’s Keeper, a program Obama founded in 2014 in the wake of the police shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to address racial inequities. The panel included former Attorney General Eric Holder and other black leaders.
Obama, who saw a similar outpouring while in office after a spate of police killings of black men, questioned the notion that one must choose between “voting versus protests” or “participation versus civil disobedience.”
“This is not an either-or,” he said. “This is a both-and.”
He also implicitly rejected those, like Trump, who have focused criticism on the demonstrators.
“For those who have been talking about protests, just remember: This country was founded on protests,” he said. “It is called the American Revolution.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler