Obama defends and clarifies stance on ‘defund the police’ slogan

Former president argues more people support policy if explained

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Wednesday 16 December 2020 19:08 GMT
Obama says that police reform messages make white Americans fear Black community will 'get out of control'

Barack Obama has defended his stance on the use of the phrase “defund the police” after being criticised by progressive members of the Democratic Party.

Speaking in an interview on The Daily Show, the former president clarified that his concern about the slogan that headlines the policy demand stemmed from that it may put people off who do not understand the aims.

Defund the police” serves as a catch-all rallying cry to reappropriate funding from the police to social services better suited for dealing with situations often foisted onto law enforcement officers. It does not mean abolishing police departments.

He told host Trevor Noah that the issue is “how do you get enough people to support your cause that you can actually institutionalise it and translate it into laws, structures, and so forth?”

“I think that people assumed that somehow I was making an argument that that’s why we didn’t get a bigger Democratic majority [in Congress],” Mr Obama said of the criticism he received from the left of the party.

The former president’s original remarks were made on the Snapchat show Good Luck America, on which he said that “you [lose] a big audience the minute” a slogan such as “defund the police” is used, making “it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted in response: “We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety.”

Mr Obama explained to Mr Noah that he was trying to make the point that the very legitimate belief that policing needs to change can get lost in translation.

“If there is, for example, a homeless guy ranting and railing in the middle of the street, sending a mental health worker, rather than an armed, untrained, police officer to deal with that person might be a better outcome for all of us and make us safer, right?” he said.

“If we describe that to not just white folks, but let’s say Michelle’s mom, that makes sense to them,” the former president continued referring to his mother-in-law. “But if we say ‘defund the police,’ not just white folks, but Michelle’s mom might say, ‘If I’m getting robbed, who am I going to call and is somebody going to show up?’”

Mr Obama also dismissed the notion was about making “white people comfortable rather than speaking truth to power”. He said that it is more “can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change that gets a particular result that we want. What’s the best way for us to describe that?”

The former president also denied that he had chastised the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that nothing had made him more optimistic in such a difficult year.

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