“Even while I was in the Oval Office, I was viewing it through different prisms. Part of me was wildly enthusiastic just to see this resurgence and activism… because my inspiration and vision of politics it starts from bottom up, not from top-down,” said Mr Obama at a virtual programme organised by My Brother’s Keeper Leadership Forum, which is part of the Obama Foundation.
He was part of a discussion on activism since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Last year, ahead of the November 2020 elections, protests following Floyd’s murder had strengthened the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Since then, it has either led to or inspired a series of actions and conversation in the US at different levels of governance to ensure justice to Blacks or other marginalised communities.
Teenager Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 by a white police officer as he walked down the street, sparking nationwide protests against police violence. Martin, another Black teenager, was shot dead while visiting his father in Sanford, in Central Florida, in 2012.
“Because, as we discovered not every president follows this, at least my successor didn’t, but I followed the basic notion that the justice department was independent … I could not steer them,” Mr Obama said.
“I did not in any way want to endanger their capacity to go in, investigate and potentially charge perpetrators, which meant that I could not come down or appear to come down decisively in terms of guilt or innocence,” he said.
He, however, said that though there were “institutional constraints… What I am proud of is that not only were we able to refashion how justice department thought about these issues but also to be able to use our convening power to gather and focus attention on what are the practical outcomes that can be implemented across the country.”
The former president also said that after the 2012 elections he didn’t have the majority needed to push the social justice agenda.
“Keep in mind, in 2012, I won. But I didn’t win congressmen, and we didn’t win a bunch of governorships back. We didn’t win a bunch of state legislators back. And so, all the reform initiatives that we were coming up with and the ideas that had been generated, we weren’t able to translate into as bold a set of initiatives as I would have wanted because we just could not get it through the legislature,” he said.
During Mr Obama’s second term from 2012 to 2016, the US witnessed several cases of civil unrest including violence against Black people.
What has evolved since then is the mobilisation and institutionalisation of the movement, Mr Obama said.