Barack Obama urges those protesting in US to seize the momentum

All four police officers involved in the death of George Floyd will face prosecution

Former US President Barack Obama has urged those protesting in the United States to seize on the momentum created by the recent demonstrations, as he paid tribute to those who have died in recent weeks.

In his first public comments on the protests Mr Obama said they were “unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime.”

The recent deaths of George Floyd and others were a "result of a long history, of slavery of Jim Crow, of red lining and institutionalised racism that too often have been the plague, the original sin of our society," he said.

But he also struck a hopeful note, adding that, “as tragic as these past few weeks have been … they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends.”


Addressing directly the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery - all African-Americans who were killed by white people in recent months - he said: “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.”

Mr Obama, who was the first African-American to be elected president in 2009, noted that many of the leading figures of the civil rights movement and other progressive causes like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were young when they tried to implement change in American society.

He said that, compared to the protests of the 1960s, “there is something different” taking place now, with “a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting.”

“There is a change in mindset taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. That is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians, that’s not a result of spotlights in news articles ... that’s a direct result of activities and organisation and mobilization and engagement of so many young people.”

Mr Obama was speaking during a virtual townhall, highlighting a policing non-profit initiative supported by the Obama Foundation. During his address he highlighted the importance of reforming policing at a local level.

He also rejected the notion that there is a binary choice between protest on the one hand, and politics and voting on the other. “This is not an either-or, this is a both-and,” he said. “To bring about real change we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to transform that into practical solutions.”

Criminal prosecution

He was speaking as Minnesota’s attorney general announced that all four police officers involved in the death of George Floyd will face criminal prosecution.

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pressed his knee on the neck of Mr Floyd for several minutes even after the detainee had stopped breathing, now faces the elevated charge of second-degree murder, having initially been charged with the lesser crime of third-degree murder.

The other three police officers who took part in the arrest of Mr Floyd which culminated in his death, have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Thomas Lane, J Kueng and Tou Thao, who were fired from their jobs as police officers last week, will now face criminal charges, according to court documents.

Earlier, the attorney for the Floyd family, Ben Crump, called on all four officers involved in the death of Mr Floyd to be charged, as he visited the site where he died with members of the family.

“We cannot have two justice systems in America - one for Black Americans and one for White Americans … we must have equal justice for the United States of America,” he said.

The death of Mr Floyd, a 46 year-old man who died while being physically restrained by police during an arrest last week, has caused shockwaves across America and the world, prompting widespread protests at what is perceived to be institutional racism in the criminal justice system in the United States.

An independent autopsy commissioned by Mr Floyd’s family found that he died of asphyxia and a loss of blood flow to the brain - contradicting an initial preliminary report which found that the autopsy “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation”, and pointed to Mr Floyd’s pre-existing heart conditions.


Meanwhile in Washington, splits emerged at the very top of the White House over Mr Trump's threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and send the US military to states to help quell the protests that have erupted across the nation in recent days.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was among the officials who accompanied Mr Trump to St John's Church across from the White House on Monday night after protestors were forcibly removed, said he did not support invoking the act.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” he said at a news conference. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

Asked if Mr Trump still had confidence in the Pentagon chief, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Wednesday afternoon: “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper and should the president lose faith we will all learn about that in the future.”

Ms McEnany also defended Mr Trump’s right to invoke the act. “It is definitely a tool within his poor,” he said. “If needed he will use it.”

The rarely-used act was last invoked in 1992 during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, when the governor of California requested federal military help.

Mr Trump has faced widespread criticism - including from the mayor of Washington DC - for sanctioning the removal of peaceful protestors from a park outside the White House before a city curfew had gone into effect.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent