In April of 2015, protesters in Baltimore took to the streets once again to protest the police killing of a Black man. The officers involved — who arrested 25-year-old Freddie Gray for carrying a knife that turned out to be legal — didn’t buckle him in the seat in the back of their police van, and took 45 minutes to drive to the precinct.
The van carrying Gray stopped six times. The second stop, which was supposedly for a “prisoner check,” was just four blocks away from the police station, yet police called for a medic 30 minutes after that stop. Gray was unconscious by the time medics got to him, meaning two of those other stops may have when officers paused to beat him. By the end of the 45-minute ride, Gray was screaming in agony and his spinal cord was nearly severed. He died a week later, while in the coma he incurred from being effectively beaten to death by police.
After Gray’s funeral, some of the protesters turned into rioters, and damaged private property. And because our government values private property more than Black lives, that’s when President Obama first addressed the protesters, referring to them as the “criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
“Whether it's arson or, you know, the looting of a liquor store ... those were thuggish acts,” Earnest said.
(President Barack Obama in 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
Despite making history as America’s first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama has been consistent in his derision of the Movement for Black Lives, both during and after his presidency.
In 2016, Obama derided Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem by suggesting he was causing “pain” to military families (Kaepernick never protested the military). He also condescended to Black Lives Matter protesters in a 2016 speech by saying “you can’t just keep on yelling.”
Earlier this year, when star players on teams competing in the NBA playoffs refused to play in protest of Kenosha, Wisconsin police shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his children, it looked as if the entire league was on the precipice of a wildcat strike. And because it was near the end of August and calls for a general strike on the first of the month had been intensifying since March, an NBA playoff strike could have been the catalyst for a nationwide general strike. But right at the critical moment, Obama called NBA Players’ Association president Chris Paul and NBA all-star LeBron James, and broke the strike by convincing them to focus the remainder of the playoffs on registering young people to vote.
This week, while promoting his new memoir, President Obama once again attacked young Black activists by suggesting they were turning off new people by calling for police departments to be defunded.
“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, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” Obama told Vanity Fair.
At its core, “Defund the Police” is a moderate position, as many activists want police departments to be abolished altogether. Defunding falls short of abolishing — it’s merely a call for city councils to cut out of control police budgets and reallocate funds to proven crime deterrents like public education, health and social services, and job opportunities. Registered nurse and formerly homeless Ferguson activist Cori Bush, who was recently elected to Congress in November, reminded Obama that “defund the police” needs to be said specifically because people have already been lost.
The Hill @thehillObama: You lose people with "snappy" slogans like "defund the police" https://t.co/qjrPY9eY2M https://t.co/ynqQHnvN3u
President Obama is also wrong in his assertion that “defund the police” turns people off from engaging with the Movement for Black Lives. As graduate student @babadookspinoza tweeted on Tuesday, support for the Black Lives Matter movement exploded nationally as activists’ calls to defund/abolish police departments were loudest.
President Obama is an incredibly educated person — in addition to working as a community organizer, and his service in the Illinois Senate, the U.S. Senate, and the White House, he was president of the Harvard Law Review, taught law at the University of Chicago, and is incredibly well-read. This means his consistent attacks on the Movement for Black Lives aren’t because he doesn’t understand the fundamentals of how politics works. People agitate for change, a cultural shift forces politicians to respond, and in election years the people either reward politicians with reelection or punish them by voting them out.
So if Barack Obama isn’t stupid, then to what end is he working by consistently denigrating and delegitimizing Black activists’ efforts to fight police brutality? Macleans contributor Andray Domise suggested that Obama’s memoir was written “to give centrists permission to treat the Black liberation [movement] like the idle daydreams of wayward children,” and that the origin of his derision toward black activists came from being raised by a white mother. Writer Ashley Stevens was even more direct, calling the former president a “villain” who seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy people powered movements.”
I understand if Black readers would prefer I stay silent on President Obama’s enabling of white supremacy, given that I’m white and there have been way too many race-based critiques of the first Black POTUS by people who lack melanin. But the insidiousness of the Obama legacy is that he’s being remembered as a great president largely because his administration succeeded one of the worst presidencies of all time, and that his successor was also one of the worst presidents of all time.
President Obama’s tenure is a paradox — he was a product of decades of Black activists’ agitation for political change in the symbolism he represented, but he’s also simultaneously a product of the white, colonial capitalist state in that his tenure oversaw the dramatic expansion of the police state and the mainstreaming of police departments’ accountability-free lynchings of Black people. If we don’t honestly come to terms with Obama’s legacy, we’ll end up repeating the same mistakes of 2009-2017. And we all know where that road leads.