Political Leaders Boldly Rise Up to the Occasion

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We look to political leaders in times of crisis. While some leaders are staying silent and their lack of support seems to be loudly deafening, others are rising up to the occasion and are proclaiming their intolerance for racism. The Obamas, Joe Biden and George W. Bush are just a few amongst these leaders who are using their voice to inspire action. 

  1. Michelle Obama: Former U.S. First Lady

“Like so many of you, I’m pained by these recent tragedies. And I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop. Right now it’s George, Breonna, and Ahmaud. Before that it was Eric, Sandra, and Michael. It just goes on, and on, and on. Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us—Black, white, everyone—no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets. I pray we all have the strength for that journey, just as I pray for the souls and the families of those who were taken from us. Artwork: @nikkolas_smith

Image and caption credit: Michelle Obama Instagram
  1. Barack Obama: 44th U.S. President

“As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering.

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. 

They deserve respect and support, not condemnation —— something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folds who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw and elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So 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. 

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But 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.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiable collective bargaining agreements with police unions.

It’s district attorney In states attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, please review boards with the power to monitor police conduct or elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense giving the direct impact these officers have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. 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.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lipservice to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.

The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do this research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

But as a starting point, I have included two links below. One leads to a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated say at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.

policing.civilrights.org/toolkit/

obama.org/anguish-and-action

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and desiring — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and any qualities still shape so much of American life. 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 or justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moments can be a real turning point in our nations long journey to live up to our highest ideals. 

Let’s get to work.”

Image and caption credit: Barack Obama Instagram
  1. Joe Biden: Former U.S. Vice President 

“We are a country with an open wound. None of us can turn away. None of us can be silent. None of us any longer can hear those words — ‘I can’t breathe’ — and do nothing.

We must commit, as a nation, to pursue justice with every ounce of our being.

Image and caption credit: Joe Biden Instagram
  1. George W. Bush: 43rd U.S. President

“Laura and I are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country. Yet we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures – and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.

It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.  

America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity. The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union. The answers to American problems are found by living up to American ideals — to the fundamental truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed by God with certain rights. We have often underestimated how radical that quest really is, and how our cherished principles challenge systems of intended or assumed injustice. The heroes of America — from Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King, Jr. — are heroes of unity. Their calling has never been for the fainthearted. They often revealed the nation’s disturbing bigotry and exploitation — stains on our character sometimes difficult for the American majority to examine. We can only see the reality of America’s need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed, and disenfranchised. 

That is exactly where we now stand. Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all. 

This will require a consistent, courageous, and creative effort. We serve our neighbors best when we try to understand their experience. We love our neighbors as ourselves when we treat them as equals, in both protection and compassion. There is a better way — the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.”

Image and caption credit: George W. Bush Instagram
  1. Kamala Harris: U.S. Senator

“I was proud to stand with protestors marching outside the White House in Washington, D.C. As we marched, I was heartened by how many people—from all races, ethnicities, and walks of life—joined our rallying cry that enough is enough. Enough with excessive force at the hands of police officers who took an oath to protect and serve our communities. Enough with being treated as less than human. Enough of living in fear that someone we love could be next.

Image and caption credit: Kamala Harris Instagram
  1. Elizabeth Warren: U.S. Senator

“I’m here today because nothing changes if we don’t speak out. It is not enough to stay comfortable in our homes and offices and say we stand in solidarity… It’s important that we get out on the front lines and call out racism everywhere.”

Image and caption credit: Elizabeth Warren Instagram
  1. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: U.S. Representative

“I’ll just say it: a lot of politicians are scared of the political power of the police, and that’s why changes to hold them accountable for flagrant killings don’t happen. That in itself is a scary problem.

We shouldn’t be intimidated out of holding people accountable for murder.”

Image and caption credit: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Instagram
  1. Gavin Newsom: Governor of California 

“Protesters have the right to protest peacefully —— not be harassed. Not be shot at by rubber bullets or tear gas.

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Today I am calling for the creation of a new statewide standard for use of force in protests. Acts of violence against peaceful protestors will not be tolerated.”

Image and caption credit: Gavin Newsom Instagram
  1. Eric Garcetti: Mayor of Los Angeles

“Rest in power, George Floyd. Sending thoughts of love and peace to all who knew him, and standing strong on the idea that the march to justice will bring people together, even in a moment of great pain and sorrow.”

Image and caption credit: Eric Garcetti Instagram
  1.  Tim Walz: Governor of Minnesota

“I laid flowers at George Floyd’s memorial this morning. As a former high school history teacher, I looked up at the mural of George’s face painted above and I reflected on what his death will mean for future generations. What will our young people learn about this moment? Will his death be just another blip in a textbook? Or will it go down in history as when our country turned toward justice and change?

It’s on each of us to determine that answer.

The charges announced by Attorney General Keith Ellison today are a meaningful step toward justice for George Floyd. But we must also recognize that the anguish driving protests around the world is about more than one tragic incident.

George Floyd’s death is the symptom of a disease. We will not wake up one day and have the disease of systemic racism cured for us. This is on each of us to solve together, and we have hard work ahead.

We owe that much to George Floyd, and we owe that much to each other.”

Image and caption credit: Tim Walz Instagram
  1. Jacob Frey: Mayor of Minneapolis 

“ attended the service for George Floyd today. It was a powerful, moving monument to his life and a call to turn what has happened into action.

George Floyd has made an entire nation open their eyes, and embrace a shared brokenness. And we *are* broken. But that can’t’ be where his story ends.

The officer who brutally took George Floyd from his family is in a maximum security prison. That’s a start.

Black people have been killed and —— for generations —— Black voices have been silenced in the wake of those murders. We need to change that now.

We have been propelled by an extraordinary energy and unprecedented recognition to the precipice of changes and reforms that are generations past due.

Minneapolis can be ground zero for structural stasis —— for the preservation of the status quo

Or Minneapolis can be the place where everything changed —— where we rise up, united in purpose, and begin addressing head on a violent and racist system.

With hope, but mainly humility, our city must come together and push relentlessly to be the latter.”

Image and caption credit: Jacob Frey Instagram
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