WASHINGTON • Former United States president Barack Obama on Wednesday applauded the “profound” protests by Americans demanding racial justice and said demonstrations over last week’s killing of a black man in police custody could spark nationwide reforms.
In his first video comments since Mr George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis triggered unrest across the country, President Donald Trump’s predecessor also urged the state and local authorities to review their policies on use of force.
Mr Obama directed his comments at young black men and women who he says have often witnessed or experienced too much violence.
“Too often, some of that violence has come from folks who were supposed to be serving and protecting you,” Mr Obama said in a webcast with activists. “I want you to know that you matter. I want you to know that your lives matter, your dreams matter.”
He also said that in the last few weeks, Americans have witnessed “the kinds of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime”.
The 58-year-old, who remains popular among Democrats, noted the deadly upheaval of the 1960s civil rights movement, and said “a far more representative cross-section of America” is protesting now than as compared with half a century ago. “There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better.”
Young protesters in particular have been galvanised, he said, and their motivation could serve as inspiration for broader change.
“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,” Mr Obama said.
He also addressed the country’s local leaders, saying: “I’m 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.”
Mr Obama did not directly address Mr Trump’s handling of the unrest, including the President’s controversial demand that the authorities “dominate” protesters.
But Mr Obama was reportedly outraged by the use of chemical dispersants on protesters outside the White House on Monday, before Mr Trump walked to a nearby church and held up a Bible.
Meanwhile, former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis issued a stinging rebuke of his erstwhile boss, Mr Trump, on Wednesday, accusing the President of trying to “divide” America and failing to provide “mature leadership” as the country reels from days of protests.
Mr Mattis, who resigned in December 2018 over Mr Trump’s ordering of a full troop withdrawal from Syria, also voiced support for the demonstrators whose anti-racism rallies have roiled the country.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try,” Mr Mattis wrote in a blistering statement posted online by The Atlantic.
“Instead, he tries to divide us,” added the retired Marine general, who had previously argued it would be inappropriate for him to criticise a sitting president. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Mr Trump dismissed Mr Mattis with a tweet, rehashing his claim that he “essentially” fired his Pentagon chief. “Probably the only thing Barack Obama and I have in common is that we both had the honour of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General,” the President wrote.