Dear Obama, ‘Defund the Police’ Is Not a Cute Catchphrase

The former president should let the activists do the talking — and defining

Former President Obama speaking against a black background.
Former President Barack Obama. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

During these last four years, I wondered why former President Barack Obama was relatively quiet as our nation morphed into a raging dumpster fire. I don’t expect politicians to be saviors, but I thought the Hope Evangelist could help extinguish some fears with a few inspiring sermons like he did back in the day. Now, with a new book to promote, A Promise Land, Obama can’t stop talking. Though I really wish he would.

In a recent interview with the Snapchat political show Good Luck America, Obama cautioned activists against using “defund the police” messaging. “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 everyone 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,” he said. “Which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”

With comments like that, a former community organizer, now among the Black capitalist liberal elite, can lose an audience too. Obama’s critique of activists’ language points to how out of touch he is, namely that he didn’t call “defund the police” what it is: a demand. It is not a slogan of the confectionery kind nor is it abstract like Obama’s 2008 “Change we can believe in.” (To his credit, Obama did mobilize folks around “Yes we can” during his first presidential campaign. But we must also remember he co-opted it from Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s “Si, se puede,” a grassroots rallying cry for the United Farm Workers Association in the 1970s.)

To Obama, “defund the police” is simply a catchphrase. He misses the point. It is, as Missouri Representative-elect Cori Bush says, “a mandate for keeping our people alive.”

Not one to radically galvanize around the urgency that a moment or movement calls for, Obama operates from a don’t-shake-the-table political stratosphere. His track record is indicative of this. This summer, Obama convinced NBA unionized players to go back to hooping amid a work stoppage. In 2016, he said Colin Kaepernick and others who take a knee should think about the pain they’re causing military families. During the Ferguson uprisings in 2014, Obama’s observations about policing poor communities were problematic. He is a reformist, a declaration he made clear in his most recent comments, who works to uphold a law enforcement system (while making a few tweaks to it) that destroys Black lives and futures.

The demand to defund the police, as ZORA contributing writer Arionne Nettles points out, lies on a spectrum. Some folks see it as a compromise, a reform itself, if plans to reduce law enforcement budgets and reallocate money to community and social services involve keeping cops around in decreased numbers. Others see defunding the police as a transitional step toward eliminating the whole system and working to replace it with restorative justice models that don’t involve cops or prisons.

Ultimately, abolishing the carceral state, to create a safer, more just, and healthier world, is where our focus and fight should be. And that — to borrow a few slogan-ish words from Obama — is the change we should believe in.

Rule breaker, champion of women and education, and recovering sports journalist.

Get the Medium app