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Obama praises George Floyd protests and sees hope for police reform, racial progress

WASHINGTON — In his first extended remarks on the civil unrest that has roiled the nation following the killing of unarmed civilian George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, President Obama sounded a cautiously optimistic note Wednesday, praising the protests that have gathered from Sunset Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue and reminding policymakers and elected officials that his own administration offered a plan for police reform.

In a virtual town hall, Obama said that this difficult moment in the nation’s history was an “incredible opportunity for people to be awakened” to the effects of racial injustice. Floyd was black, while the police officer charged with killing him is white. The latest death of an unarmed African-American followed several other instances of racial violence across the nation.

Without addressing instances of looting that marked some of the protests, the nation’s first black president and Chicago community activist encouraged constructive civil disobedience. “To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable,” Obama said, “but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”

The online conversation, titled “Anguish and Action,” was hosted by the Obama Foundation, the ex-president’s philanthropic foundation. It was part of an initiative Obama started while in the White House called My Brother’s Keeper, which was intended to address persistent issues facing young men of color. Other speakers included Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general and the first African-American to hold that position. 

Speaking via digital link from what appeared to be a room in his private home, Obama sounded both pained and encouraged by the images that have dominated news coverage in recent days. He never mentioned President Trump by name, nor offered anything that could be construed as a criticism of his successor. But his sympathetic, measured tone was a stark contrast to Trump’s combative tweets and warnings about the use of military force.

Barack Obama. (My Brother's Keeper/Zoom)

Obama discounted comparisons between the unrest over Floyd’s killing and 1968, when protests followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arguing that a much broader segment of society was engaged in social disobedience today.  

“Part of what’s made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have been galvanized and activated, and motivated and mobilized,” Obama said.  

The former president, who was a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago before entering politics, said he was similarly encouraged by members of law enforcement who listened to or even sided with protesters. 

Obama praised “the folks in law enforcement who share the goals of reimagining policing” to be more measured in the use of force. “I know that you’re just as outraged about the tragedies in recent weeks as are many of the protesters,” he added. 

Obama noted that when he was president his administration had empaneled a task force on police reform. That task force published a report on proposed reforms for the nation’s 18,000 police departments. Among its recommendations was that law enforcement agencies should “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”

The report also urged police departments to house officers in the communities they police and to foster “positive nonenforcement interaction with police,” so that community members do not see police officers as a merely punitive force. 

“You’re a vital part of the conversation,” Obama told law enforcement officers. 

At one point, he directly addressed young people of color: “I want you to know that you matter,” he told them.

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Anti-racism protests across the U.S.

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Houston police chief Art Acevedo talks with members of the community gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd during a march across downtown Houston, Texas on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. - Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress rioting, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Protestors are putting their hand up while approaching police officers during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Hundreds of protestors march during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Police officers arrest protestors right after the curfew time during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Demonstrators start a fire as they protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A young boy holds a "Justice" sign as he peers outside the window of a car passing protesters marching through downtown for a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

People kneel in front of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Sunday, May 31, 2020, at protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Floyd was a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Demonstrators pray during a march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests continue across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Law enforcement officers from Calvert County Maryland Sheriff's Office standing on the Ellipse, area just south of the White House in Washington, as they watch demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A woman is arrested after being pulled out of a passenger seat for reckless driving as protesters take to the streets in SoHo on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Protestors confront a police officer in his car in Memphis, Tennessee during a protest over the death of George Floyd May 31, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

Protestors throw smoke bombs back at the Shelby County Sheriff's deputies Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

People break into a smoke shop on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Police arrest a man in SoHo on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

A white man and a black man clasp hands as police in the background guard the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, June 1, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Protestors celebrate after eluding authorities and stopping traffic along Interstate 55 in Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

A protester holds a tattered American flag as police stand guard over the old state capitol in in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

A protester takes a knee as he tries to talk with police guarding the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Police in riot gear protect the old state capitol building in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

A protester hugs a police officer who kneeled after protesters attending a rally against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor chanted "Kneel with us! Kneel with us!" in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

A protester holds a police officer's hand while praying together during a rally to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Police officers tackle a suspect trying to escape in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

People run as police arrive to the scene of a broken into smoke shop in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A protester runs after placing a construction barrel on top of a gas grenade in downtown Fredericksburg, Va. on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Arrested protesters are loaded onto a transport bus by police on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Mounted Midland County sheriff's deputies head through a crowd outside the Midland Park Mall while trying to disperse protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Midland, Texas, on Sunday, May 31, 2020, following the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP)

A demonstrator holds up a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests were held in U.S. cities over the death of Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A demonstrator holds a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Police stop a driver in the SoHo shopping district Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Las Vegas police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Las Vegas Police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Nikayla Williams rallies on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Protesters rally on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York City to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

A young man throws a trash can through the window of an AT&T store Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. 5. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).

Protesters head away from police in Santa Monica, Calif., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)

Protesters speak to Virginia Commonwealth University police who expressed solidarity with the marchers during a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Protesters hold hands up and chant "don't shoot" during a standoff with Savannah police after a peaceful rally, Sunday, May 31, 2020, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

A man with a face covering walks past a mural depicting George Floyd during a protest over the death of Floyd Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a police officer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Members of California National Guard stand guard in Pershing Square, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. The National Guard is patrolling Los Angeles as the city begins cleaning up after a night of violence by demonstrators that saw clash with officers and torch police vehicles and pillage stores. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Demonstrators march in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Demonstrators rally in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A Lawrence police officer hands water to protesters in Lawrence, Kan., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

A woman is helped after being hit with pepper spray after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

An officer points pepper spray towards people after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A demonstrator makes a heart sign while protesting after curfew Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis.Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Authorities move through gas and detain a protester as demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

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