News & Politics

Barack Obama Urges Activists to Capitalize on George Floyd Outrage

Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves prior to delivering his speech during the 4th Congress of Indonesian Diaspora Network in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, July 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

On Monday, former President Barack Obama encouraged activists to make the protests and riots following the horrific death of George Floyd into a “turning point for real change.” While Obama has championed radical “transformative” change in America that undermines many of the virtues of the Founding and the Constitution, his advice for criminal justice reform proved surprisingly apt and measured. While the groups he recommends are suspect, activists should indeed follow some of his advice — and especially listen to his powerful condemnation of the looting and riots.

Obama acknowledged that the protests “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.” He insisted that “the overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring.”

Yet he condemned “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,” Obama said. While the former president had previously exacerbated racial tensions, his condemnation of this violence was important.

The former president insisted that translating “aspirations” into “specific laws and institutional practices” involves political action, but he insisted that “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.” While the Democrat would of course like to see his former vice president win in November, he encouraged activists to focus on local races where they could have a more concrete impact on criminal justice reform.

He also urged them to make specific demands, to make it harder for “elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.” This is solid advice, regardless of your position on the issue.

Obama then encouraged activists to tools from the Obama White House and the Obama Foundation, directing them to left-leaning activist groups on these issues.

Criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue, as evidenced by Trump’s denunciation of the police abuse that killed George Floyd and the president’s decision to sign the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill in December 2018. Trump is currently working on a Second Step Act, and that effort is only likely to pick up steam after George Floyd’s tragic death.

Obama’s advice is generally sound, but the organizations he supports are suspect. Also suspect is the brand of “criminal justice reform” in Obama’s former home city of Chicago.

While criminal justice reform is an important issue, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has pushed it in a terrifying direction. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has condemned many instances in which Foxx faulted police and released criminals.

FOP Second Vice President Martin Preib has condemned the vacating of two felony convictions for high-ranking Spanish Cobra gang member Ricardo Rodriguez in February. Eliminating the 20-year-old convictions paves the way for Rodriguez to avoid deportation and remain in the country, he argued.

Prieb also mentioned two cases early in Foxx’s administration. Arturo DeLeon-Reyes and Gabriel Solache confessed to stabbing Mariano and Jacinta Soto, murdering them and kidnapping their children. Yet Solache and DeLeon-Reyes claimed, like so many convicts, that they were victims of police misconduct, even though they pleaded guilty and confessed to the murders. The two were later released after Foxx’s office granted immunity to a police officer who testified against the department.

“The weaponization of the criminal justice system that we saw under the Obama administration through to this Mueller investigation, this attack on Trump, Foxx falls right in line with that — undermining the criminal justice system and turning it into a political advocacy outpost for the left,” Prieb told PJ Media last March in the wake of the Jussie Smollett scandal.

Americans should regard Obama’s specific recommendations on criminal justice reform with suspicion, but they should listen when he condemns the looting and rioting — and when he tells proponents of change to focus on local elections.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

George Floyd Would Have Condemned the Riots. Here’s How We Know.