Activists are firing back at former President Barack Obama for his comments in a recent interview promoting his new memoir, “A Promised Land,” in which he called activist demands to “defund the police” ineffectual and said they should push for reforms, instead.

“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, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund The Police,’” Obama said. “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.” 

The concept of defunding the police has roots in the decades-old prison abolitionist movement, but it went mainstream this summer during Black Lives Matter protests following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. According to The New York Times, the protests constituted, by sheer number of participants, the “largest movement in U.S. history.” 

The movement’s energy was in part the result of long-brewing dissatisfaction with the police reforms advanced by the Obama administration.

Representative-elect Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter leader who helped organize protests after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to Obama on Twitter: “With all due respect, Mr. President—let’s talk about losing people. 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.”

Since the Nov. 3 election, establishment Democrats have adopted the talking point that “Defund the Police” is the reason for the party’s down-ballot losses. House majority whip James Clyburn blames the movement’s radical rhetoric for alienating potential support for Democrat Jaime Harrison, who lost his bid to unseat Republican Senator Lindsay Graham by 10 points despite spending a record $104 million dollars.

“Jaime Harrison started to plateau when ‘Defund the Police’ showed up with a caption on TV, ran across his head,” Clyburn claimed on NBC News on Nov. 8. Clyburn neglected to mention that protests against police violence coincided with a large spike in Democratic Party voter registration

Writer, attorney, and activist Malaika Jabali noted that defunding the police is overwhelmingly popular in cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in May sparked a wave of mass demonstrations that spread throughout the country and beyond

Obama is the latest high-profile Democrat to blame the party’s failure to win a congressional majority on progressive messaging without presenting evidence. In the interview, Obama urged activists to change their messaging. 

“If you instead say, ‘Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly,’ you know, divert young people from getting into crime,” he said. “And if there was 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.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom Obama praised during the same interview for her ability to bring fresh energy into the Democratic Party) pushed back against Obama’s comments, arguing that “Defund the Police” was a strategic success because it forced politicians to take activists’ demands seriously. 

“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,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

In 2015, the Obama administration released a 59-page report calling for police reforms such as increased oversight, training, and body-worn cameras—all of which required increasing already bloated police budgets and helped to further justify austerity measures for schools, healthcare, and housing. These reforms have failed to substantively change policing. According to Mapping Police Violence, police have killed 1,016 people in 2020 so far. 

Baltimore became an example of the limits of Obama-era police reforms and federal oversight after the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray by police in 2015. While the Baltimore Police Department was under investigation by the Department of Justice, the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a specialized Baltimore police unit, was robbing drug dealers and planting evidence, and it continued to operate with impunity for years. This organized corruption was finally exposed in 2017 and has cost taxpayers millions in settlements to date. This is in part because police and their unions successfully resisted efforts at reform, Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg argue in their recent book,I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.”

“In our book about the Gun Trace Task Force, we illustrate how police were running a criminal enterprise within the department right under the nose of Obama’s DOJ. And reporting the book out, we noticed police fought federal oversight and sabotaged reform,” Soderberg told The Real News. “It’s a good example of why Obama-era reforms are not enough. The police here opposed reforms on principle and claimed that it made their jobs harder and even threatened actions such as slowdowns. They literally leveraged violence against the city they’re supposed to protect and serve to prevent even rudimentary reforms.”

For his part, President-elect Joe Biden has proposed increasing police spending by an additional $300 million. Activists have rejected this plan outright, arguing that it doesn’t address the root causes of violence. If anything, the Obama era illustrated how throwing more money at police doesn’t magically improve the quality, nor curb the brutality, of our criminal justice system. 

“We know that policing in this country hasn’t worked for a long time and Biden’s response shows how out of touch the Democratic Party is with its base of Black people,” said Ralikh Hayes, deputy director of Organizing Black, a grassroots member-led collective, in an interview with The Real News earlier this year. 

Activists in Baltimore are demanding the city halve its $500 million annual police budget to fund education and social services in disinvested Black communities. The city spends more on policing than housing, civil rights, wage enforcement, healthcare, and education combined. Hayes’ sentiments about Baltimore, which is wracked with police corruption scandals and has endured five straight years of 300-plus homicides, are shared by other “Defund the Police” supporters about their own cities.

“Violent crime stems from years of disinvestment in communities like mine,” Bush tweeted last week. “St. Louis City is nearing its record in homicides, but announced plans to shut down 11 public schools. We can’t defund education and expect to fix violent crime. We have to invest in our communities.”

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.