Barack Obama, in one of his latest interviews following the release of his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, sounded off on the Black Lives Matter movement’s “Defund the Police” slogan:
“If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like Defund the Police, but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done. . .So the key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with? And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are.”
Obama’s book itself seems to be a rewriting of history and a rationalization of his failure to deliver on his own “snappy slogans” like Hope and Change, Yes We Can, and Change You Can Believe In, and most of what he’s said on this promotional press tour, including the above statement, is consistent with that theme.
Contrary to Obama’s categorization, “Defund the Police” is not merely a “snappy slogan,” but rather, a bold, specific, and sensible demand, and a very effective one at that. Less than a month after George Floyd’s murder, dozens of cities throughout the country responded to this rallying cry by cutting funds from their police departments and re-allocating the savings into social services. No such reforms would have taken place were it not for the specificity and forcefulness of the Black Lives Matter protestors.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Barack Obama has tried to police, if you will, the tone of the BLM movement. In April of 2016, he lamented that they “just keep on yelling,” as opposed to working within the system and negotiating with lawmakers and elected officials. In that town hall meeting, he added:
“You then have responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek.”
In both of these quotes, Obama conflates the roles of grassroots activists and Democratic politicians. He clearly believes that the relationship between the two must be mutually beneficial, implying that if activists and elected officials can’t get along, no progress can be made. What he fails to grasp is that it is actually not the responsibility of the activists to prepare an agenda, package it in broadly palatable terms, and “engage the other side” when necessary in order to implement legislative reforms. This is the sole responsibility of the politicians themselves.
The activists’ job, on the other hand, is to aggressively and uncompromisingly push politicians in the direction of their desired outcomes. In other words, contrary to Obama’s assessment, the activist’s task is precisely the opposite of “meeting people where they are.” Social movements exist to change public opinion, not to accommodate it for the sake of certain politicians’ electoral prospects.
Is this to say that every Democrat ought to fully embrace the “Defund the Police” slogan? Not necessarily. If certain Democrats in swing districts feel that such a phrase is too risky for them to embrace, then that’s their prerogative. But to try and muzzle the grassroots and insist that activists censor themselves for the benefit of centrist Democrats in conservative areas is to overstep their bounds.
Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders assume that progressive social movements must exist for the benefit of the Democratic Party, which is entirely backwards. From our perspective, the Democratic Party, or any other political party for that matter, must exist for the benefit of progressive social movements. Therefore, the party that tells such movements to keep quiet so that they can maintain their power is a party that’s of no use to them.
We discuss all of this and more on episode 98 of the Due Dissidence podcast. Click the player below to hear our full conversation (discussion of Obama’s comments begins at the 4:30 mark):