Political candidates lose support when using “snappy” slogans like “defund the police.” That’s what former president and political heavyweight Barack Obama said this week on Good Luck America — a Snapchat show with Peter Hamby.
He 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.”
According to Obama, the only way to put an end to police terror is to stop talking neabout it and stop fighting against it. We should expect nothing less from a member of the ruling class — especially from Barack Obama, a former U.S. President and leader of the racist, imperialist war machine. For all of Obama’s popularity, his comments aren’t friendly advice from an activist who shares our goals. Obama represents a capitalist state which needs a police force to maintain a system of billionaire leeches who profit off of the labor and misery of the vast majority of working class folks.
His statement is part of a larger strategy within the Democratic Party of crushing social movements — in this case the Black Lives Matter movement — and of shaming activists into accepting the status quo. Obama is suggesting nothing other than maintaining police funding and police presence in their entirety. But this strategy extends way beyond Obama; on the local level, Democratic party politicians brutally repress the movement. Yet at all levels of the government, the Democrats attempt to co-opt it with symbolic gestures — like painting “Black Lives Matter” on city streets or the kente cloth stunt in Congress. With this two-faced strategy the Democrats were able to drive some of the movement out of the streets and to the polls in November. The height of the BLM movement was also the height of voter registration.
Biden won the election thanks in part to the actions and activism of the Black community and the anti-racist protests over the summer. As Donald Trump bellowed about Antifa and told white supremacists to “stand back and stand by,” the Democrats associated themselves with BLM by tweeting and speaking about institutional racism. Biden spoke at George Floyd’s funeral. He traveled to Kenosha after Kyle Rittenhouse killed BLM activists. The Democrats acted appalled when Donald Trump ordered the tear-gassing of protesters in Washington, D.C., while carefully ignoring the fact that Democratic officials all over the country tear-gassed protesters as well. The Democrats attempted to lay claim to the anti-racist vote, to paint themselves at the antidote to Trump’s outright white supremacy — but without promising any substantive structural change. And it worked.
They counted on the BLM Network, unions, and countless local non-profits to campaign for Biden and to persuade people to swallow their disdain for his racist politics and Kamala Harris’s past as a prosecutor, all to “get Trump out.” Now, having had a worse-than-expected performance in the 2020 election, the Democratic Party is seeking to blame their losses on the Black Lives Matter movement rather than on the fact that it ran an entirely anti-Trump campaign. They proclaimed that “nothing will fundamentally change” and promised more neoliberalism when it was neoliberalism that created Trumpism, as well as the economic and health crisis we are in right now.
Now that Trump has lost the election and the Democrats have gotten what they wanted from BLM, the Democrats want to quash the movement and any idea that the police should be defunded. Who better to do that than the charismatic first Black President of the white supremacist United States of America? Now that Biden has won and the movement has died down for the time being in the streets, it’s time to trod out Barack Obama as the “friendly advisor” to the movement. It’s time to paint activists as unrealistic and convince us that the best we can ever do is water down our proposals and vote in Democrats like him in the name of pragmatism.
Obama has spent the last month trying to fill the vacuum of enthusiasm for the “establishment” sector of the Democratic Party. His book tour is meant to do just that — rev up enthusiasm for “the good old days” of the Obama administration before the chaos of the Trump years. He’s trying to shore up support for Biden’s administration and the Democratic Party to reinvigorate their neoliberal rule in the middle of a shifting social, political, and economic climate. But it’s not clear if this strategy is going to work. More and more people are seeing through Obama’s veneer.
Obama Was Never on Our Side
Barack Obama has always been our enemy. On the issues that most affect workers, people of color, women, and the poor, he has given countless speeches and made bold declarations about the need for change. He said Trayvon Martin could be his son. But those pretty words hiding empty promises meant to pull at heart-strings of Black folks and of anti-racist activists who really want “hope and change.” But these bold words and declarations have one goal and one goal only: to continue, perpetuate, and legitimize the racist U.S. capitalist system which Obama’s presidency and policies did everything to uphold.
Let’s look at some of Obama’s policies:
- Obama oversaw and maintained the largest prison industrial complex in the world: 2.2 million people jailed or imprisoned. Under Obama, 9 million people were in jail, on parole, or on probation. At the end of his presidency, he proposed some reforms to the prison system, but these attempts to co opt the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement did next to nothing to confront police brutality, even by bourgeois standards.
- During his administration, Obama made huge inroads for U.S. capitalism. He was known as the “King of Drones.” Obama bombed more countries than President Bush — seven against Bush’s four. Obama dropped 72 bombs a day, the equivalent of three an hour in 2016.
- In 2007 the average yearly income of white families was $58,000. This dropped to $55,000 in 2013, while the figure dropped from $41,000 to $34,000 for nonwhite families. The racial gap clearly widened during the Obama presidency, which bailed out Wall Street instead of the working class. For communities of color, this was catastrophic.
- Obama deported 3.1 million people, more immigrants than any other president in the history of the United States and spent billions of dollars strengthening the immigration system that cages families and children across the country…
- Obama put Assata Shakur, the former leader of the Black Liberation Army back on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list decades after she was removed from it.
Obama’s charm and progressive rhetoric are meant to cover up these policies — and many more. Every time the fight against racism emerges in the streets, Obama comes out to bring everyone back to the Democrats. For example, over the summer he said, “So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.” In other words, protests are all well and good as long as they help the racist, capitalist Democratic Party.Only a few days ago he said he was proud of his daughters for joining the BLM protests.
But he uses this relatable, “socially-conscious” rhetoric to position himself as part of the movement — and then to turn around and scold the movement whenever it threatens to step outside the bounds of narrow range of acceptable activities.
Take Obama’s 2016 statements about Black Lives Matter. He specifically cited a Black activist from Chicago, Aislinn Pulley, who refused to meet with him. He said, “You can’t just keep on yelling at them and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position…The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable — that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.”
Capitalism Needs the Cops
Barack Obama isn’t against “defund the police” because it’s alienating. Barack Obama is against “defund the police” because the police are a necessary pillar of capitalism. The police are the direct descendants of slave catchers, who terrorize Black communities and maintain a disproportionately Black and Latinx semislave workforce in prisons. The police are meant to defend a racist system of capitalist profits in which Jeff Bezos is exponentially increasing his wealth in the pandemic while folks — disproportionately people of color — wait hours in food bank lines. And those things aren’t disconnected. Bezos is rich because he profits off the menial wages of his workers. He is super rich because he pays almost no taxes while the government claims there is just no money for aid to the working class. And in the next period, as eviction moratoriums expire and economic desperation increases, the state will need the police to evict folks from their homes and quell protests.
But in order to keep the peace, it’s essential for politicians and capitalists alike that we not question why the cops show up at protests decked out in high tech gear while nine months into a pandemic there still isn’t enough PPE for healthcare workers, or why there isn’t funding for the unemployed or why the government continues to claim there is no money for Medicare for All. The truth is that when we look at funding, the money is there. But it’s going to the military, to the police, and into the pockets of the billionaires who profit off of our labor.
That’s why as socialists, we must fight to abolish the police and the racist capitalist system it protects.
Abolish Capitalism, Abolish the Police
The Obama strategy seems to have worked for the Democrats in the past, but increasing sectors of people radicalized by the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the Black Lives Matter movement are stepping up to speak out against his legacy. The backlash against Barack Obama’s statement has been swift and clear. People who previously supported him took to Twitter to denounce his statement and to make clear that he is no longer so popular within the Black community and among activists.
I could probably respect takes like this more if there was at least more rigor behind them. Where’s the data? Which moderates chose not to vote for Democrats primarily bc the term “defund the police” exists? He’s a lawyer. Citations matter. It’s lazy. https://t.co/VBVuTIkYyR
— Malaika Jabali (@MalaikaJabali) December 2, 2020
Obama isn’t against #DefundthePolice because of how it sounds, he’s against defund the police because rich people and corporations need strong, well-funded, and militarized police departments to brutally repress the poor and colonized people they’re looting from
— Hood Communist Blog (@HoodCommunist) December 2, 2020
Even some politicians within the Democratic Party itself have spoken out — like Cori Bush tweeted “With all due respect, Mr. President—let’s talk about losing people. We lost Michael Brown Jr. We lost Breonna Taylor. We’re losing our loved ones to police violence. It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive. Defund the police.” Ilhan Omar said, “We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety.”
They are correct in their criticisms of Obama. But, despite their progressive rhetoric, they are also Democrats, and their progressive rhetoric also plays the role of bringing anti-racist activists into the Democratic Party — the party that is currently led by none other than “shoot ‘em in the leg” Biden. And Obama knows they are, despite their differences, helpful to the party. After all, right after speaking against the slogan “defund the police,” Obama said that AOC should be given a bigger platform. After all, she’s the most exciting and dynamic wing of the Democratic Party. When push comes to shove, she’ll do everything in her power to mobilize her base for people like Joe Biden and the Democratic Party establishment.
For rank-and-file activists the lesson is clear: It’s not enough to condemn Obama’s words. It’s not enough to condemn Obama’s record. It’s time to finally break with a party that exists in order to act as the graveyard of social movements.
Republicans who have open white supremacists in their ranks are no solution either, even if they point out the dishonesty of the Democrats. We need our own political organization that represents the working class, the youth in the streets, women, Black people, immigrants, queer and nonbinary, and people of all oppressed sectors. The Democrats and Republicans represent only capitalism, imperialism, and its interests — even if they send in Barack Obama as their spokesperson.
“Defund the police” may be “alienating,” but for whom? For the racist capitalist system that defends the police to maintain wealth inequality and exploitation. But as socialists, we have no trouble alienating them. In fact, we want to defeat their policies and the entire system they uphold. And for that task , we don’t need Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. In fact, we need to go further than even “Defund the Police.” We shouldn’t hide our goals and aims. It’s time to abolish the police and this miserable system. And that isn’t a “snappy slogan.” It’s what we fight for.