It’s hard to explain just how unsurprising it is to hear moderates excoriate modern activists by telling them their “slogans” aren’t good enough, as if that is where the real problem lies. Obama, a long time hero of many on the left, opened up to Peter Hamby, the host of a show called Good Luck America. From what I can tell this show is the mash up you get when Snapchat meets American politics. During the show, Obama decried calls by progressives and activists to defund the police as being an unmarketable approach in the modern fight for civil rights and against police brutality. In his conversation with Hamby, Obama called the cries for police reform as “snappy” phrases and went on to say “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.” As someone with a university degree (but by no means an expert) in Conflict Resolution Studies, I spent some time studying social movements. While there is something to be said about using marketable ideas in order to broaden your impact, I have to say I disagree with President Obama vociferously.
The first caveat I would like to make is that, as a cis-gendered heterosexual white male, I know almost nothing about being a victim of discrimination or civil rights abuses. I have never been, and never will be, a victim of systemic oppression, nor will I suffer discrimination because of the color of my skin. Obama lives this experience, and he was uniquely dragged though the public sphere by our current racist in chief with the entire birther issue. So I will not be speaking to that, but where I do find disagreement is on the issue of where the onus is on civil rights and police brutality. Because as I see it, it’s way past time to address those that continue to ignore, or perpetuate, the civil rights violations. Instead of calling out activists doing the necessary ground work, with pushback from all sides of the political spectrum, why not call out those that continue to miss the point? This seems like the obvious route to take, but we continue to kick the ball into our own net when it comes to civil rights and activism in 2020. By throwing a nation of activists under the bus, moderates have taken the side of the oppressor.
Yes, calls to defund the police are multifaceted and varied in definition. There are some that literally want all funding stripped and police departments disbanded in favor of other law enforcement models. There are others that want to completely overhaul police departments and adopt a completely different paradigm when it comes to how we keep our communities safe. There are disagreements between those that use this phrase, but one thing that I think is in universal agreement is that policing cannot simply be reformed. Reform has become a euphemism for inaction in this country. Law enforcement needs to be drastically altered from the top down WHAT laws are written, HOW those laws are then publicly interpreted and applied, WHO is interpreting and applying theses laws, and what type of SERVICES are we expecting law enforcement to be involved with. Currently we have a training gap, an expertise gap, an educational gap, a political gap, a racial gap, a violence gap, and a clear funding gap. As a society we put value in arming our police departments to the teeth so that they look more akin to U.S. Special Forces instead of people that need to be focused on problems at the community level. No two communities are the same, and therefore the needs are as diverse as the people that live in them. While I firmly support punitive financial punishment to law enforcement, the need to defund them isn’t solely based on the public distrust of cops. We need to defund the police so that we can refund programs and people that have more training and expertise than cops. We need to defund the police, so we can refund our communities and actually address the systemic issues that cops are unable and unwilling to address themselves.
The final point that needs to be made is to address the gaslighting done to the activists in our communities. No, I am not calling myself an activist. I’ve participated in some protests, but that is not remotely enough to earn that badge. The problem with armchair critics of modern activism, is they do exactly what Obama just did. These heroes (that’s what they are to me) do not simply show up at protests, yell snappy phrases, and go home like the entitled generation they are made out to be. They go home from protests and continue to fight and do a lot of really difficult leg work behind the scenes. I live in a small city in the Midwest, and here in Omaha we have our own activist group that fights tooth and nail for justice. These efforts go unnoticed when people like Obama go public with their uninformed dismissal of these heroes. We have a community organization doing a lot of that necessary work here in Omaha. Locally we are all aware of Bear Alexander (a personal hero of mine) and his tireless work at protests, what goes unnoticed in the media a lot of times is the tireless legal, political, and organizing efforts he is engaged in on an almost daily basis. ProBlac – a group created and designed as a space for allies to listen and participate in the prioritizing and uplifting of Black and Indigenous voices in our community – is intensely engaged in these efforts. These aren’t disorganized children standing on street corners with signs looking for attention. There are several other individuals and groups in the city that work together for this goal. The change that will inevitably come will be a result of their work and efforts on all of these fronts. It would be nice if these efforts could be praised and even accurately understood instead of dismissed with snappy phrases from on high.
If you’d like to see for yourself the hard work being done by Bear and many more of these local activists – you can find them here.
Thanks for sticking this one out