WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama encouraged Black Americans to “keep marching, keep speaking up, keep voting” to usher in progress throughout the nation after a year that was marred by the coronavirus pandemic and the deaths of unarmed Black men by law enforcement.
In an interview with BET.com published Thursday, Mr. Obama noted the challenges of 2020 “can make you wonder if things will ever get better,” but said that for policies to be changed, “we cannot let up during these next four” years.
“The people who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism,” the former president told BET.com when asked for his message to Black Americans. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to convince you that your vote, and your voice, doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. And that’s why we need to keep marching, keep speaking up, keep voting.”
2020 brought unprecedented challenges before the nation, as Americans grappled with a pandemic that has killed more than 569,000 in the U.S., a bruising presidential election and the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of law enforcement, including George Floyd in May.
Caught on camera by Darnella Frazier, Floyd’s killing sent shockwaves throughout the country and sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, as Americans watched Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while he lay prone, struggling to breath. A Hennepin County, Minnesota, jury convicted Chauvin of murder on Tuesday.
Amid the demonstrations last summer, House Democrats put forth a sweeping police reform measure that came to be named for Floyd, while local and state officials ordered changes to policing tactics to curtail police violence.
Reflecting on the social movement sparked by Floyd’s death to call attention to systemic racism and police brutality, Mr. Obama said it’s important for those who want to change the status quo to continue “making your voice heard.” Protesting, he added, has “often been the only way to get people’s attention.”
“But eventually, movements have to be translated into laws and policies — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands,” he said. “In this case, we need to elect state and local officials who will make fighting systemic racism and guaranteeing equal justice a priority. We need to pass ballot initiatives and other measures that will do the same. And we also need to bring community groups, elected officials, and police departments together to make real change.
“In other words,” Mr. Obama continued, “I think anyone who believes in change should reject the false choice between participating in protests or politics. We need both.”
While Floyd’s death led lawmakers on Capitol Hill to roll out legislation that aims to hold law enforcement accountable, it has only passed the Democratic-led House and faces an uphill battle in the Senate. There, Republicans take issue with a provision that would reform qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police from lawsuits for constitutional violations, and warn the overhaul could hurt law enforcement officers acting in good faith.
But the guilty verdict in the case against Chauvin has given the bill, which also bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases, new momentum, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in discussions over police reforms. President Biden has urged lawmakers to send the measure to his desk, and the White House said he plans to elevate the issue during his joint address to Congress next week.
While Mr. Obama encouraged Americans to continue fighting, he lamented the country’s deep political, cultural, ideological and geographic divisions, which the former president said “seem to be deeper than just differences in policy.”
“Until we can agree on a common set of facts, until we can distinguish between what’s true and what’s false, then the marketplace of ideas won’t work. Our democracy won’t work,” he said. “So, as citizens, we need to push our institutions in the direction of addressing these challenges.”
But Mr. Obama stressed the importance of Americans remaining consistently engaged, beyond presidential election years and in the wake of tragedy.
“I know it can be exhausting,” he said. “But for this democracy to endure, we need active citizenship and sustained focus on the issues — not just in an election season, but all the days in between.”