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Obama's thoughts on calls to 'defund the police' warrant scrutiny

Former President Barack Obama recently wrote "A Promised Land" which details experiences serving his time in the White House.  – Photo by Wikimedia

Former President Barack Obama has been making the headlines lately, largely due to some choice excerpts from his freshly published autobiography, “A Promised Land,” where he admitted how, as a college student, he would read the works of Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and Virginia Woolf, among others, in the hopes of wooing girls. 

Although the buzz from his autobiography has been slowly dying down since late November, Obama re-entered the limelight in an interview with Good Luck America, a Snapchat political show, on Dec. 2, where the former president criticized the rhetoric employed by activists pushing for police reform. 

“I guess you can use a snappy slogan like 'defund the police,' but you (lose) a big audience the minute you say it," Obama told host Peter Hamby. 

In order to understand why this particular comment has drawn so much attention and criticism, some context as well as an explanation of what is meant by defunding the police is warranted. 

The U.S. has a rich and troubled history of racial profiling and police brutality that disproportionately victimizes people of color, particularly Black men, women and children.

The Black Panther Party (1966-82) and the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in 2013, represent some of the most notable responses to the racism, violence and corruption that plagues (or, more aptly, characterizes) law enforcement across the country.

The revitalized demand for police reform emerged against the backdrop of George Floyd’s unjust murder at the hands of four police officers that occurred earlier this year on May 25.

Floyd’s death has led to a series of ongoing racial justice protests, which periodically receive greater traction when yet another individual falls victim to police brutality or when previous injustices that have yet to be resolved and often went largely unreported at the time of their occurrence come to light, as the tragic deaths of Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor have demonstrated. 

During the final presidential debate between President Donald J. Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, both candidates voiced strong opposition to defunding the police, which entails “reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality,” and represents one of the core features of police reform that a multitude of activists are strongly advocating for. 

One of the main criticisms leveled against Obama’s comments is succinctly articulated in the following excerpt from The Washington Post article published on Dec. 6: “If Black political aspirations were limited by fear of turning off many white people, African Americans would never have fought for voting rights, equal access to quality schools or integrated housing.”

While Obama recommends that activists adopt a “universal language” which engages rather than aggravates groups of people opposed to a given policy demand, critics have argued that these very people were never likely to change their minds and lend their support to the cause in question. 

Expecting a sudden change of heart from opponents who have not indicated any desire for change (particularly as such change would no longer exclusively benefit them or serve their interests) is unrealistic and would, at best, perhaps result in piecemeal change that has very little positive effect on the material conditions that characterize the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. 

Furthermore, activists have expressed resentment against the charge that “defund the police” is simply a “snappy slogan” and have asserted that it is instead a policy demand that reflects a clear and direct message. Tweaking the message in efforts to draw broader support, some critics have argued, minimizes the importance of the call to defund police.

Such a direct call to a specific course of action cannot be sugar coated and altering it could fundamentally change the core message it aims to convey. 

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