On December 1, 2020, Barack Obama expressed his distaste for the slogan “Defund the Police”. The former President claimed that the slogan alienates moderate voters and will hurt future police reform legislation. However, substituting poignant slogans in exchange for more “polite” language simply makes the underlying issue of police brutality easier to ignore. Ultimately, Obama’s request is one that hurts the underlying goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Establishment Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, routinely use this strategy of appealing to the moderate voter in order to garner support for their legislation, but it seldom works. In fact, during his presidency, Obama was a victim of this very phenomenon. After the killings of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the President made comments on racist police practices, but clarified his statement by saying that law enforcement is an incredibly difficult job. The same thing occurred after the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Despite this, Obama was continually criticized for his “hate on cops”. The President’s polite and measured language did not dissuade people from criticizing him. Despite the frequent killing of black men by the police, Obama was not allowed to offer criticisms of the criminal justice system without being accused of hating the police. The reality is, there exist many individuals who want to either minimize or deny the existence of racist policing practices. Those individuals will not support police reform, regardless of the language used to frame the argument.
In fact, in almost every instance that the issue of police brutality has been brought up in discourse, fierce criticism followed. In 2014, the town of Ferguson erupted into protest after the police officer responsible for Michael Brown’s death was exonerated of all charges by a grand jury. The Black Lives Matter movement was demonized in the media and 59% of Americans believed that the protests went too far. Whether or not you think the riots in Ferguson were justified, what is indisputable is that any discussion of police reform was shut down, even when police used armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons to disperse protesters. Even in situations where demonstrations remained peaceful, any criticism of law enforcement was written off as hatred of the police. For instance, in 2016 Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in order to raise awareness for police brutality in the United States. Even this simple act of protest was met with hate and vitriol.
Routinely, any criticism of police violence is met with fierce opposition, no matter what form that criticism takes. If an individual doesn’t support police reform, a change of rhetoric isn’t going to convince them to change their mind. If the repeated, and disproportionate, killing of black men in this country is not enough to convince someone that something needs to change, then I’m not sure what will. The use of “polite” language as opposed to direct, succinct language is, in my opinion, inconsequential to the support of the movement. The reason why the opposition wants the Black Lives Matter to alter their rhetoric is because it has the potential to tangible change the criminal justice system. By shifting language to appeal to the “moderate”, the movement would have less societal impact. Barack Obama’s demand for more measured rhetoric is simply a request to not rock the boat, to not fundamentally change anything.