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As the nationwide protests and unrest have continued to spread and intensify since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last week, America’s former presidents have been weighing in with their own statements, all of which have diverged — significantly — from President Trump’s widely criticized responses. Every living former president — Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — has spoken out about Floyd’s death, racial injustice, and the nation’s response. Read their reactions below.
President Barack Obama
America’s first black president has responded publicly to Floyd’s death and the subsequent unrest three times over the past week. (His vice-president, the current presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, gave a speech about Floyd, the unrest, and Trump’s response on Tuesday.)
On Wednesday, June 3, Obama gave an address to the nation responding to the events during a virtual town hall for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative:
Here is a transcript of Obama’s remarks:
Let me start by just acknowledging that we have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’m now, a lot older than Playon [Patrick], I’m going to be 59 soon. And let me begin by acknowledging that although all of us have been feeling pain, uncertainty, disruption, some folks have been feeling it more than others.
Most of all, the pain that’s been experienced by the families of George [Floyd] and Breonna [Taylor] and Ahmaud [Arbery] and Tony [McDade] and Sean [Reed], and too many others to mention, those that we thought about during that moment of silence. And to those families who have been directly affected by tragedy, please know that Michelle and I and the nation grieve with you, hold you in our prayers. We’re committed to the fight of creating a more just nation in the memory of your sons and daughters, and we can’t forget that even as we’re confronting the particular acts of violence that led to those losses, our nation and the world is still in the midst of a global pandemic that’s exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare system but also the disparate treatment and as consequence, the disparate impact that exists in our healthcare system, the unequal investment, the biases that have led to a disproportionate number of infections and loss of life in communities of color.
So in a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief. They are the outcomes not just of the immediate moments in time, but they’re the result of a long history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and institutionalized racism that too often had been the plague, the original sin of our society. And in some ways, as tragic as these past 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 underlining trends, and they offer an opportunity for us to all work together to tackle them, to take them off, to change America and make it live up to its highest ideals.
And part of what’s made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized because historically, so much of the progress that we’ve made in our society has been because of young people. Dr. King was a young man when he got involved. Cesar Chavez was a young man; Malcom X was a young man. The leaders of the feminist movement were young people. The leaders of union movements were young people. The leaders of the environmental movement in this country and the movement to make sure that the LGBT community finally had a voice and was represented were young people. And so when sometimes I feel despair, I just see what’s happening with young people all across the country and the talent and the voice and the sophistication that they’re displaying, and it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country’s going to get better.
Now, I want to speak directly to the young men and women of color in this country, who as Playon just so eloquently described, have witnessed too much violence and too much death and too often some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you. I want you to know that you matter, I want you know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter. When I go home and I look at the faces of my daughters Sasha and Malia, and I look at my nephews and nieces, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive. You should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what’s going to happen when you walk to the store or go for a jog or driving down the street or looking at some birds in a park. And so I hope that you also feel hopeful even as you may feel angry because you have the power to make things better, and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that’s got to change. You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years.
I want to acknowledge the folks in law enforcement that share the goals of reimagining policing because there are folks out there who took their oath to serve your communities to your countries have a tough job, and I know you’re just as outraged about the tragedies in the recent weeks as are many of the protesters, so we’re grateful for the vast majority of you who protect and serve. I’ve been heartened to see those in law enforcement who recognize, “Let me march along with these protesters. Let me stand side by side and recognize that I want to be part of the solution,” and have shown restraint and volunteered and engaged and listened because you’re a vital part of the conversation, and change is going to require everyone’s participation.
When I was in office, this was mentioned, I created a task force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of the tragic killing of Michael Brown. That task force, which included law enforcement and community leaders and activists, was charged to develop a very specific set of recommendations to strengthen public trust and foster better working relationships with law enforcement and communities that they’re supposed to protect, even as they’re continuing to promote effective crime reduction. And that report showcased a range of solutions and strategies that were proven and that were based on data and research to improve community policing and collect better data and reporting and identify and do something about implicit bias and how police were trained and reforms to use the force the police deploy in ways that increase safety rather than precipitate tragedy.
That report demonstrated something that’s critical for us today. Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we’ve seen take place at the local level. A reform has to take place in more than 19,000 American municipalities, more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. And so as activists and everyday citizens raise their voices, we need to be clear about where change is going to happen and how we can bring about that change.
It is mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police forces, and that determines police practices in local communities. It’s district attorneys and state attorneys that decide typically whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct, and those are all elected positions. And in some places, there are police community review boards with the power to monitor police conduct. Those oftentimes might be elected as well. The bottom line is, I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter on the internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not a either/or, this is a both/and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented and we can monitor and make sure we’re following up on.
So very quickly, let me just close with a couple of specific things. What can we do?
Number one, we know there are specific evidence-based reforms that if we put in place today would build trust, save lives, would not show an increase in crime. Those are included in the 21st Century Policing Task Force report. You can find it on Obama.org.
Number two, a lot of mayors and local elected officials read and supported the task force report, but then there wasn’t enough follow up. So today I am urging every mayor in this country to review your use of force policies with members of your community and commit to report on planned reforms. What are the specific steps you can take? And I should add by the way that the original task force report was done several years ago. Since that time, we’ve actually collected data, in part because we implemented some of these reform ideas. So we now have more information and more data as to what works, and there are organizations like Campaign Zero and Color of Change and others that are out there highlighting what the data shows: what works, what doesn’t in terms of reducing incidents police misconduct and violence. Let’s go ahead and start implementing those. So we need mayors, county executives, others who are in positions of power to say this is a priority, this is a specific response.
Number three, every city in this country should be a My Brother’s Keeper community because we have 250 cities, counties, tribal nations who are working to reduce the barriers and expand opportunity for boys and young men of color through programs and policy reforms and public-private partnerships. So go to our website. Get working with that because it can make a difference.
Let me just close by saying this: I’ve heard some people say that you have a pandemic, then you have these protests. This reminds people of the ’60s and the chaos and the discord and distrust throughout the country. I have to tell you, although I was very young when you had riots and protests and assassinations and discord back in the ‘60s, I know enough about that history to say there is something different here.
You look at those protests, and that was a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting and who felt moved to do something because of the injustices that they had seen. That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition, the fact that recent surveys have shown that despite some protests having been marred by the actions of some, a tiny minority that engaged in violence, that despite, as usual that got a lot of attention, a lot of focus, despite all that, a majority of Americans still think those protests were justified.
That wouldn’t have existed 30, 40, 50 years ago. There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better and that is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians, that’s not the result of spotlights in news articles, that’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country, who put themselves out on the line to make a difference. So I just have to say thank you to them for helping to bring about this moment and just make sure that we now follow through because at some point, attention moves away.
At some point, protests start to dwindle in size. And it’s very important for us to take the momentum that has been created as a society, as a country, and say, “Let’s use this to finally have an impact.”
Obama’s first response to Floyd’s death came on May 29 via an Instagram post:
I want to share parts of the conversations I’ve had with friends over the past couple days about the footage of George Floyd dying face-down on the street under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota.
The first is an email from a middle-aged African-American businessman.
“Dude I gotta tell you the George Floyd incident in Minnesota hurt. I cried when I saw that video. It broke me down. The ‘knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don’t care. Truly tragic.”
Another friend of mine used the powerful song that went viral from 12-year-old Keedron Bryant to describe the frustrations he was feeling.
The circumstances of my friend and Keedron may be different, but their anguish is the same. It’s shared by me and millions of others.
It’s natural to wish for life “to just get back to normal” as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly “normal” — whether it’s while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park.
This shouldn’t be “normal” in 2020 America. It can’t be “normal.” If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.
It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is ultimately done. But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station — including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day — to work together to create a “new normal” in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.
Then on June 1, Obama published an essay/call-for-action on Medium:
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 our 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 folks 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 an 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 a 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 negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices 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 lip service 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 their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.
But as a starting point, here’s 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 site 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.
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. 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.
President George W. Bush
On June 2, former president George W. Bush released a statement via his foundation in which he praised the protests, seemed to indirectly criticize President Trump’s response, and acknowledged how systemic racism had led to Floyd’s death:
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.
President Bill Clinton
On June 1, former president Clinton released the following statement via the Clinton Foundation:
In the days since George Floyd’s death, it is impossible not to feel grief for his family — and anger, revulsion, and frustration that his death is the latest in a long line of tragedy and injustice, and a painful reminder that a person’s race still determines how they will be treated in nearly every aspect of American life.
No one deserves to die the way George Floyd did. And the truth is, if you’re white in America, the chances are you won’t. That truth is what underlies the pain and the anger that so many are feeling and expressing — that the path of an entire life can be measured and devalued by the color of one’s skin. Fifty-seven years ago, Dr. King dreamed of a day when his “four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, that dream seems even more out of reach, and we’ll never reach it if we keep treating people of color with the unspoken assumption that they’re less human.
We need to see each other as equally deserving of life, liberty, respect, dignity, and the presumption of innocence. We need to ask ourselves and each other hard questions and listen carefully to the answers.
Here’s where I’d start.
If George Floyd had been white, handcuffed, and lying on the ground, would he be alive today?
Why does this keep happening?
What can we do to ensure that every community has the police department it needs and deserves?
What can I do?
We can’t honestly answer these questions in the divide and conquer, us vs. them, shift the blame and shirk the responsibility world we’re living in. People with power should go first — answer the questions, expand who’s “us” and shrink who’s “them,” accept some blame, and assume more responsibility. But the rest of us have to answer these questions too.
It’s the least we can do for George Floyd’s family and the families of all other Americans who have been judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character. The future of the country depends on it.
President Jimmy Carter
On June 3, the 95-year-old former president released the following statement via the Carter Center:
Rosalynn and I are pained by the tragic racial injustices and consequent backlash across our nation in recent weeks. Our hearts are with the victims’ families and all who feel hopeless in the face of pervasive racial discrimination and outright cruelty. We all must shine a spotlight on the immorality of racial discrimination. But violence, whether spontaneous or consciously incited, is not a solution.
As a white male of the South, I know all too well the impact of segregation and injustice to African-Americans. As a politician, I felt a responsibility to bring equity to my state and our country. In my 1971 inaugural address as Georgia’s governor, I said: “The time for racial discrimination is over.” With great sorrow and disappointment, I repeat those words today, nearly five decades later. Dehumanizing people debases us all; humanity is beautifully and almost infinitely diverse. The bonds of our common humanity must overcome the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.
Since leaving the White House in 1981, Rosalynn and I have strived to advance human rights in countries around the world. In this quest, we have seen that silence can be as deadly as violence. People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say “no more” to a racially discriminatory police and justice system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks, and government actions that undermine our unified democracy. We are responsible for creating a world of peace and equality for ourselves and future generations.
We need a government as good as its people, and we are better than this.