Obama’s Dismissal of ‘Defund the Police’ Hides an Inconvenient Truth
Photo: Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

Obama’s Dismissal of ‘Defund the Police’ Hides an Inconvenient Truth

Politicians continue to misframe…

Last week, a 23-year-old Black man was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy. In the back. And the only thing in his hand was a Subway sandwich.

The story of Casey Goodson Jr. is predictably familiar. Authorities initially claimed that Goodson had waved a gun outside of his car, but it didn’t take long for that to be proven to be a lie. Goodson was returning to his home in Columbus, Ohio, from a dentist appointment when Franklin County deputy Jason Meade shot and killed him from behind. Goodson had put his keys into his door before he was shot and fell into the kitchen — where his five-year-old brother and 72-year-old grandmother found him lying, the sandwich still in his hand.

Goodson had no committed crimes, had no criminal background, and was not the target of any investigation. Despite his being licensed to carry a concealed weapon — which he never brandished — the NRA won’t bother shedding any tears for him, because the real weapon in question was Goodson’s Blackness. Such matters are irrelevant to the group for gun manufacturers. All the more angering is the fact that multiple state and local agencies are complicating an investigation into Goodson’s death — boosting the odds that Goodson’s killer will be let off the hook as so many others have been.

I don’t want to ever grow numb to the fact that in this country, a Black person can be shot and killed and bleed to death in front of his kid brother and grandma while holding his keys, a mask, and a sandwich for nothing. Plague or no plague, an institution with roots in slave patrolling continues to have free rein to kill us without justification and largely without consequence. All Goodson did was go to the dentist and get a sandwich; now he is dead, leaving behind unspeakable trauma for his family.

To believe that we can one day exist in a country where Casey Goodson’s murder doesn’t sound so typical. You might not agree with that stance, but to dismiss or diminish it when the corruption of law enforcement has been more rampant than ever feels unconscionable.

None of this barbarism is breaking news to us of darker hues, and it’s exactly why the movement to defund (and eventually abolish) the police has taken on so much urgency this year. To believe that we can one day exist in a country where Casey Goodson’s murder doesn’t sound so typical. You might not agree with that stance, but to dismiss or diminish it when the corruption of law enforcement has been more rampant than ever feels unconscionable.

That’s what bothered me so much about former President Obama’s recent description of “defund the police” as a “snappy slogan.”

“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,” Obama explained in a recent interview on Snapchat show Good Luck America. “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?”

What a remarkable statement from the person behind sloganeering such as “Yes we can” and “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” There’s also the other campaign themes of “hope” and “change,” and more recently, “Don’t boo… vote.”

Irony aside, this mirrors Obama’s earlier dismissal of what he deemed “woke” culture last fall. In an interview with actor and activist Yara Shahidi at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago last October, the former president decried social justice awareness for its perceived unhelpful puritanism.

“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb… I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because, man, you see how woke I was?” he said. “You know, that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

I’m a growing fan of post-presidency Obama’s shit-talking, but not when it comes to shit like this.

If you’re going to offer criticism about a given subject, you should probably know the position you’re critiquing — and that goes for two-term presidents as well.

#Defundthepolice is not a marketing slogan about reforming the police. That is a convenient narrative concocted by critics and seized upon by the status-quo-perpetuating politicians who would rather have that conversation than discuss the merits of activists and organizers calling for the end of policing as we know it. Those politicians are by no means only Republicans: House Whip James Clyburn, who single-handedly revived Joseph Biden’s candidacy before this year’s South Carolina Democratic primary, joined other moderate Democrats in blaming #Defundthepolice for losing congressional seats, ignoring the fact that his party stupidly campaigned solely on health care while the U.S. economy is on fire and food pantry lines have skyrocketed across the country.

Obama may be the first Black president, and an important symbol for many of us, but that doesn’t give him the right to misrepresent a policy stance and lecture organizers for not doing things the way he did. Much of Obama’s political ascension was related to making White people comfortable, and in a separate interview with White House correspondent April Ryan, he dispelled any doubt that such a consideration informed his #Defundthepolice criticism.

The relationship between Black people and police is “always a hot topic,” he said in that interview, because it “unearths or excavates or escalates fears within the White population that somehow the African American community is going to get out of control in some way or is not respecting authority.”

The Trump era should have demonstrated to him and others that there’s only so much that can be done to appease a racist electorate. The same can be said of how the right will respond. Obama was as clean-cut as they come, and the caricatures never stopped.

Those pushing #Defundthepolice are not fixated on White fear, but on state-sanctioned violence inflicted on Black, Brown, and other marginalized people.

Back in June, in the New York Times op-ed “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” Mariame Kaba offered a much more thoughtful, nuanced articulation of #Defundthepolice than Obama and his co-signers have made it seem. Understanding the issue is not widely popular yet, she wrote: “Regardless of your view on police power — whether you want to get rid of the police or simply to make them less violent — here’s an immediate demand we can all make: Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half. Fewer police officers equals fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people.”

Unfortunately, with violent crime on the rise this year, not many Americans want to have this conversation. Indeed, a Gallup poll released around the time of Kaba’s piece revealed that Black Americans actually wanted more police. That’s understandable: We have all been conditioned to believe law enforcement is the answer. Yet, as Kaba wrote, #Defundthepolice is not about leaving vulnerable communities more prone to violence, but rather “[redirecting] the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”

Too often, police not only don’t help a situation, but worsen it. In October, Walter Wallace Jr.’s family called 911 in hopes of getting him mental health treatment. They asked for an ambulance, but Philadelphia police arrived on the seen first — and ended up killing the young man instead.

#Defundthepolice is depicted as farcical and unserious ’cause it makes some White folks uneasy, but five or six years ago very few could have foreseen Black Lives Matter reaching such high approval this year. Even after Trump’s repeated attacks, BLM has maintained a strong approval rating. It’s a testament to the work that many organizers and activists have done over years.

Abolitionists already have their work cut out for them in convincing the masses to see their point of view and join them in their calls for change, but I wish Obama’s attitude, if not “Yes, we can” at the very least, would be “Maybe with time.” No matter where you stand — the end of policing as we know it or dramatic reform — the police unions pose the biggest barrier to any sign of progress. If only past presidents and current politicians in power had the courage to critique them, rather than the killers those unions continue to protect and serve.