Barack Obama on Turning Protests and Anger Into Political Change: "Let's Get to Work"

As protests continued through major cities over the weekend following the death of George Floyd, Barack Obama shared his thoughts on how nonviolent protests can lead to change in policies. In an essay published on Medium, the former president detailed how anyone feeling "a genuine and legitimate frustration" can use this moment to inspire real change. "If we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn't between protest and politics. We have to do both," he wrote. "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 we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn't between protest and politics. We have to do both."

In order to implement change and make sure Black voices are heard and represented, Obama emphasized that it starts with local elections and understanding which levels of government have the most control over the issues we're fighting for. "The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels," he wrote.

We, as voters, have to understand that the mayors and county executives are the individuals working with police unions and that those making the decisions about police misconduct hold elected positions, like those of district and state attorneys. Obama pointed out the issues with low voter turnout for these local races, "which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues."

Obama also denounced the violent protests making headlines. "Let's not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. 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.

During a time when the country is surrounded by political unrest amid a pandemic, the former president encouraged people to turn to actionable steps to demand change. He shared a toolkit from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a dedicated website within the Obama Foundation that includes ways to take action at the local and national level.

"I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life," Obama wrote. "But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. 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. Let's get to work."