On Refusing Obama’s Attempts to Quell the Abolitionist Imagination

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By: Justin

Folks that know me know that each time former U.S. President Barack Obama releases any type of statement I will have something critical to say about the way he speaks to Black folks and about Black politics. Because of Obama’s status as a visible Black icon, and particularly folks’ nostalgic memories of him as an image of Black progress, we forget that as a former U.S. president he is an agent of the state with the aim of quelling any form of radicalism that challenges the structures which got him into his position of power. We cannot forget that he was no different from Trump in calling folks in the Baltimore uprising “thugs.” We cannot forget that the initial stages of the “Black Lives Matter movement” happened under his watch, and all he had to offer was piecemeal reforms and patronizing speeches about morals and ethics that have not changed our situation today. 

In the years following the end of his presidency, Obama has drawn upon our collective nostalgia about his legacy and desires to see him as a visible Black leader to further solidify himself as the Democratic Party’s talking piece to quell Black rebellion and shift Black radicalism back into the terms approved by the liberal establishment: reform and electoral politics. Jon Jon Moore wrote an incredible essay arguing this point this past November after Obama gave a speech to donors of The Democracy Alliance in which he stated: “the average American ‘doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it…They just don’t want to see crazy stuff. They want to see things a little more fair, they want to see things a little more just.” Moore goes on to argue in the essay that “Obama’s pleas for moderation and restraint rely on discrediting and outright condemning the political imagination of younger Black people in the U.S., those largely responsible for his election.” Obama’s recent Medium essay in which he lectures us on “real change” and his co-signing of Campaign Zero’s reformist #8cantwait policy recommendations are a new iteration of Obama’s efforts to condemn and constrain the Black radical imagination in response to the current uprising.

Obama’s most recent statement about the ongoing nationwide Black rebellion confines the realm of possibility for “real” change within electoral politics, and equates electoral politics with politics in totality. He frames protest as something else outside of the realm of politics, as only a means of raising awareness to create grounds for the “real” political action of voting. Although he does argue for the need for “both,” his positioning of protest and politics as antagonisms is a tactic of constraining the imagination of what protest is, and what forms of political action we have available to us. Protest–direct action–is a form of politics, an autonomous method of asserting people power that refuses and undoes the logics and systems of reform and electoral politics Obama is presenting. I use the term autonomous to refer to a type of political action that works outside of the channels sanctioned by the state. Action that does not rely on methods deemed acceptable by the state or give power to the state but is rooted in the self-governing, self-sufficient capacities of the people themselves. In refusing to confine action to what is permitted by the state (reform, electoral politics), Black autonomous action questions the legitimacy of these channels for governing our lives in the first place.

The burning of the state buildings where elected officials work is a means of articulating the impossibility of electoral politics providing any form of relief from antiblackness. The rebellions are not raising awareness for policy changes. “Burn it down,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “I can’t breathe” articulate that which cannot be translated into “specific laws and institutional practices” as Obama commands. These statements demand something much more expansive than what any Obama-approved “criminal justice reform” can ever offer us, and we must refuse any attempt at limiting us to wanting “things just a little more just.” The desire for a world which allows for Black breath, in which black folks can simply be without the constant threat of violence, demands abolition and settles for nothing less. (For folks new to the concept of abolition, I suggest this helpful zine from MP150, folks on the ground organizing in Minneapolis.)

The framework of abolition moves from the understanding that the prison industrial complex–“the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems”–fundamentally requires antiblackness to operate and thus cannot be reformed and must instead be eliminated altogether. Abolition is not a one-time event but a practical everyday organizing framework that seeks strategies of decreasing the reach of and reliance on the prison industrial complex while building alternative forms of care, relation, and self-defense rooted in Black autonomy. The framework is also attended to transforming the social, economic, and political conditions which produce “crime” in the first place. Thus, while the abolitionist horizon of a world without police, prisons, and surveillance exceeds any specific policy, there are practical steps which can move us toward this horizon.

The primary step being articulated this moment is the specific demand of #DefundThePolice. This demand is emerging across the country, and organizers are crafting agendas of what defunding police departments looks like in their specific locales. Through this demand, organizers are identifying the incomparably larger budget allocations for policing and incarceration in comparison to education, healthcare, and other social services. This is especially visible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the state has struggled to provide appropriate PPE for healthcare workers while police departments are fully supplied with highly militarized equipment. We know that the police do nothing but bring further terror to our communities, and we demand a redistribution of resources so that we have the means to care for ourselves.

Abolition expands the realm of the possible and “practical” beyond what is offered by Obama and the liberal establishment. We are not confined to advocating for policies that assume the permanence of police. A world without police is possible, and we will commit to the political practice of direct action until we achieve this end. The myriad of mutual aid formations that have emerged in response to COVID-19 and the ongoing uprisings, as well as community defense formations in place long before this moment, show that the tools for another world are already in our midst. The increasing numbers of folks taking up the language of abolition show that folks are increasingly seeing this possibility. Obama and the liberal establishment know this, which is why they are trying to confine our imagination to the dangerous reformist offerings of Campaign Zero.

Obama has a history of offering measures of police reform in response to Black protest against policing. Mariame Kaba wrote an essay in response to Obama’s requests for funding for body cameras and police “training” in December 2014 following the Ferguson uprisings. Kaba’s essay outlines a useful set of questions for identifying which types of reforms to refuse (see also this graphic from Critical Resistance). Body cameras were a popular reformist policy in the aftermath of Ferguson, which as we have seen have not done anything to reduce police murders–police either never have their cameras turned on or kill and brutalize folks on camera. We must refuse any policy that aims to allocate more funding to the police when our unrelenting aim is for defunding and abolition.

Obama’s newly co-signed set of reforms comes from Campaign Zero, led by Deray McKesson who has endlessly been critiqued by organizers for his role in co-opting the movement on the ground in Ferguson. The set of policies is called #8cantwait, and was launched via an interview with GQ (if you’re dropping policy via GQ, it’s probably not radical and is ultimately laughable). The policies claim to be “data-backed” and proven to lead to a 72% decrease in police killings. I will let other folks critique this “data-backed” argument because that is not my aim here. I’m focused on the incredibly disrespectful limiting of our desire for a world without police to 72% less killings. The immediate release of these policies in the midst of upheaval is intentional, it is aimed at confining and limiting our expansive desires. If that is not enough to convince you to refuse these policies, a close reading of the suggestions will: 

  • Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
  • Require de-escalation
  • Require warning before shooting
  • Exhaust all other means before shooting
  • Duty to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers
  • Ban shooting at moving vehicles
  • Require use-of-force continuum
  • Require comprehensive reporting each time an officer uses forces or threatens to do so

These policies ignore the nationwide demands to #DefundThePolice, and accept the inevitability of police existence and violence. These policies also assume that police will follow behavioral protocols when many of these protocols are already in place in major cities where police killings have happened. I would argue that having these policies in place would actually help police avoid accountability–they would be able to argue that they attempted to de-escalate, followed the use-of-force continuum, and gave a warning, the evidence or non-evidence of which is nowhere to be found because of their turned off body camera.

We cannot settle for a world in which we are still killed but just after a warning. And we cannot be coaxed into settling by state agents who present themselves as Black leaders. We also cannot allow these state agents to redirect our radical, autonomous energies into giving up our power to the state. The formations we are building, the relationships we are cultivating, the “shutting shit down” we are doing, is where the realm of “real” possibility lies. We must refuse any rhetoric that tries to say otherwise, no matter who it comes from.

Update June 7, 2020: Since I originally published this post, a group of abolitionists published the site for #8toAbolition, a set of 8 demands as alternatives to the reforms presented by Campaign Zero.

Resources for Additional Reading

See this article by Minkah Makalani for an extended analysis of the limits of formal politics, and the inability of establishment Democrats to comprehend Black Lives Matter.

See the introduction of Progressive Dystopia by Savannah Shange for a discussion on the distinctions between reform and abolition. Shange lays out how reformist aims of “winning” policy changes result in Black people remaining as “losers.”

Verso is offering two free ebooks on police and police abolition.

See this list of resources compiled by MPD 150 on abolition, the 2020 uprising, and the discourse which has emerged in response.

Webinars: Policing without the Police | #8toAbolition | On the Road with Abolition | Abolition in Our Lifetime

Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition (podcast interview)

“It’s Not Civil Disobedience if You Ask for Permission” by Mariame Kaba

“Minneapolis Organizers Are Already Building the Tools for Safety Without Police” by Jae Hyun Shim

An analysis of the George Floyd uprising in NYC

Police Abolition and other Revolutionary Lessons from Rojava by Hawzhin Azeez

How I Became a Police Abolitionist by Derecka Purnell

William C. Anderson on abolition (podcast interview)

Reformism by Errico Malatesta

The Case for Delegitimizing the Police by William C. Anderson

Policing Has Failed: For Real Public Safety, We Need A Million Community-Driven Experiments by Mary Hooks

Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police by Mariame Kaba

What We Talk About When We Talk About Defunding the Police from the Nashville Scene

Abolition is not a Suburb by Tamara Nopper

Saidiya Hartman on insurgent histories and the abolitionist imaginary

Tasting Abolition


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