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Why Obama’s ‘Defund the Police’ Criticism Misses the Point

We already tried 'reforming' the police. It didn't work.

The Recount via Twitter

Whether it’s complaints about messaging or the actual policy, establishmentarian center-left Democrats continue to insist that defunding the police is an all-around disaster. It’s too bad that they appear to have never once considered how we got here in the first place.

Former President Barack Obama criticized what he called the “snappy slogan” of “defund the police” during an interview with Snapchat which was released on Tuesday—part of a relentless book tour for the first volume of his memoir. “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,” Obama said. Instead, he went on, you can build a coalition that can actually achieve your goals by saying: “Let’s reform the police department so everyone’s treated fairly.”

It is genuinely incredible that a man who once infuriated conservatives by saying Trayvon Martin could have been his son believes that activists pushing defunding are the ones inflaming the debate to the point where any reform at all is impossible. It’s even more incredible that the Beer Summit guy, who spent zero time during his first two years in office pushing for police reform and later had to resort to executive orders to get anything done—not exactly the sort of coalition-building he demands of the people he’s scolding—is criticizing activists for not wanting to “actually get something done.”

The full weight of the criminal justice system, save for some reformist district attorneys who have been elected in recent years, opposes any kind of police reform. Cop unions openly threaten politicians who dare to criticize them. This year opponents of reform turned marching in racial justice protests into attack ads against cop-lover Max Rose, and even the most moderate attempts at reform get the same kind of treatment from people like New York City PBA president Pat Lynch as defunding the police.

It’s not just Obama and moderate House Democrats incapable of assuming any responsibility for their defeats or even close races. Matt Yglesias, the Vox founder-turned-Substack-guy, has been banging a drum since the election that “defund the police” is not just bad politics but bad policy as well. He did it again on Wednesday.

The framing here of defunding the police as a pro-austerity movement is a typically shitty attempt at cleverness from Yglesias, but let’s take the argument at face value. Police budgets make up a disproportionate share of municipal budgets; in some cities like Chicago, it’s as high as 37 percent of the city’s general operating fund. Activists do not want this money to disappear; they want it redirected into funding for housing, as well as other social services and programs that are supposed to help prevent situations where the police need to be involved at all.

But the more pressing question here is whether or not people like Obama and Yglesias understand why, exactly, calls to defund the police gained so much prominence among people sympathetic to the need to change policing. Activists have already tried all of the things they want them to try. Body cameras, in the rare situations where they’re made publicly available, have not resulted in cops being less likely to brutalize people or facing consequences for doing so. Prosecutors continue to refuse to prosecute bad cops, not least because every other part of their job requires cooperation with the police. The police are becoming more militarized, not less.

This is not to say that calls to defund or abolish the police wouldn’t exist if the government was more responsive to calls for reform. These ideas have existed since long before they entered mainstream political discourse this year, and certainly way longer than before Matt Yglesias stumbled ass-backwards into a position on them.

But if you’re a liberal thinker confused about why this idea has gained so much prominence on the left in recent months, it’s not because it’s a “snappy slogan,” or because your opponents love austerity, or because the people you’re criticizing are knuckledragging morons seeking instant gratification without thinking through to the next step. It’s because when Black and Latino and poor people and their allies pleaded with their government to reform the system, the door was effectively slammed shut in their faces over, and over, and over again.