Former president Barack Obama presented an optimistic take on the civil unrest that has gripped the nation, urged mayors to enact policing reforms developed during his administration and spoke directly to young people of color, telling them, “Your lives matter.”

In his first public remarks since protests over the death of George Floyd began roiling cities coast to coast, the nation’s first African American president described the events of the past week “as profound as anything that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Yet Obama said that in the protests he saw an awakening in the country to the challenges and fears black Americans endure. The confluence of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionately large effect on black communities and the death of the African American Floyd in the custody of white police officers has exposed America’s systemic racial injustices, he said.

Obama said he has been heartened by the young people mobilizing these demonstrations, noting that youths have led nearly every major social change in the country. He noted that unlike in the 1960s civil rights movement, when African Americans mostly marched alone, the protesters now represent a cross-section of races.

And he said he’s encouraged that a majority of Americans, despite the attention on “a tiny minority that engaged in violence,” still believe the protesters are justified.

“That wouldn’t have existed 30, 40, 50 years ago. There is a change in mind-set that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better,” Obama said.

Obama made his remarks during a virtual town hall hosted by his nonprofit, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which was created to address gaps in opportunity for young black men and boys.

He focused most of his comments on the need for policing reforms, imploring local leaders to implement policies devised by a task force his administration created after the unrest in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., that followed the killing of another black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.

Obama did not weigh in on the political tensions of the moment or the White House’s response to the protests. The closest he came was at the end of the event, when he said that those criticizing the protests should remember that the United States was founded on protest.

“And every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable,” he said.

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