'Activists aren’t PR firms for politicians': New lawmakers reject Obama's take on defunding police

Former President Barack Obama is facing criticism from his supporters after he encouraged them to part ways with the phrase “defund the police.” The former community organizer appeared in an interview posted Wednesday on journalist Peter Hamby’s Snapchat series “Good Luck America.” 

“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,” Obama said, “I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘defund the police, but you know you’ve 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.”

The movement to defund or demilitarize the police pushes government officials to rethink how cities utilize police departments and reallocate a portion of police budgets to mental health, education, and social services. It gained traction following the death of George Floyd, a Black man brutalized by Minneapolis police officers when an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, ultimately killing him. Obama, however, argued that using the phrase “defund the police” may turn people away from the larger purpose it’s meant to serve. The phrase has already been misused by Republicans to wrongfully accuse Democrats of advocating for a sort of lawless anarchy. 

“But if you instead say ‘let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly. Divert young people from getting into crime,” Obama said. “If there’s a homeless guy, can maybe we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy? Suddenly a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you.

“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,” the former president added. “And if you want to get something done in a democracy as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are, and play a game of addition and not subtraction.”
The problem is that protesters, mothers, fathers, and children alike are tired of playing political games. They took to the streets en masse to demand change, not ask for it, following Floyd’s death. The phrase “defund the police” encapsulates the frustration of a people beaten, killed, and brutalized by police for decades. The directness in the ask is intentional because it’s not an ask at all. It’s a demand—a much-needed reminder that as taxpayers, we hold the power.  
Rep. Cori Bush, of Missouri referenced Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, other Black people killed at the hands of police, in a tweet she sent Tuesday. Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot at least six times and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the common narrative that Brown was suspected of robbing a convenience store, officers admitted they had no knowledge Brown was a robbery suspect and had only stopped him for walking in the street. The situation escalated, and his body was left in the street for four hours on Aug. 9, 2014, The Associated Press reported. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was sleeping on March 13 when Kentucky police who had obtained a “no-knock” drug warrant bashed in her door and shot her eight times even though no drugs were found in her apartment and the person authorities were searching for was already in custody in Louisville that night.

“With all due respect, Mr. President—let’s talk about losing people,” Bush said in her tweet. “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.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t name any names, but she said in a Twitter thread Wednesday that the point of protesting is to make people uncomfortable. “What if activists aren’t PR firms for politicians & their demands are bc police budgets are exploding, community resources are shrinking to bankroll it, & ppl brought this up for ages but it wasn’t until they said ‘defund’ that comfortable people started paying attn to brutality,” she said. “The thing that critics of activists don’t get is that they tried playing the ‘polite language’ policy game and all it did was make them easier to ignore. It wasn’t until they made folks uncomfortable that there was traction to do ANYTHING even if it wasn’t their full demands.”

The whole point of protesting is to make ppl uncomfortable. Activists take that discomfort w/ the status quo & advocate for concrete policy changes. Popular support often starts small & grows. To folks who complain protest demands make others uncomfortable… that’s the point.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 2, 2020

In the interview, Obama also said the Democratic Party needs to focus more on promoting young people. He directly named Ocasio-Cortez after she was only asked to deliver a one-minute prerecorded speech during the Democratic National Convention. “We stick so long with the same ole folks and don’t make room for new voices,” Obama said. “You know the Democratic National Convention, I thought, was really successful considering the pandemic, but, you know, the fact that an AOC only got what, three minutes or five minutes, when she speaks to a broad section of young people who are interested in what she has to say even if they don’t agree with everything she says.”

Now, the Promised Land author may be considering himself among those who have to agree to disagree with the progressive New Yorker.

I’m no moderate. I had no issue with the Defund the Police slogan but I have to admit Barack Obama and Joe Biden have won a combined 216 million votes in 3 elections so y’all might want to listen to them when it comes to campaigning. Your fav didn’t get out the primaries. pic.twitter.com/G1OciT7tQJ

— Daryl Sturgis✊🏽 (@darylsturgis) December 2, 2020

this is the best explanation I’ve seen for “defund the police” as a slogan and policypic.twitter.com/O5tUNk4IQQ

— ☀️👀 (@zei_squirrel) December 2, 2020

There’s a genuinely interesting and important story to be told in all this about political rhetoric – who gets to shape it and how it works for different agents, etc – but I don’t expect to read it anytime soon.

— Osita Nwanevu (@OsitaNwanevu) December 2, 2020

the fact that 5 months after George Floyd’s death people are still arguing about HOW and TO WHAT EXTENT policing needs to change rather than just settling back into the status quo could also be interpreted as proof of how effective “defund the police” is.https://t.co/7Yuez3AhVj

— Jelani Greenidge aka G-Natural (@jelanigreenidge) December 2, 2020

I recommend every organizer/activist listen to these words from Hansberry when people tell you that your method of protest and organizing is a problem. Powerful reminder : https://t.co/lXg6OZtPyl

— Imani Perry (@imaniperry) December 2, 2020

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Source: dailykos