There’s not going to be any kind of thoughtful response coming out of this White House to protests against police brutality, but the United States can turn for thoughtful, presidential response to the last president. Barack Obama has written about “How to make this moment the turning point for real change,” with some important pieces of advice for protesters and activists—but also the acknowledgement that “Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times.”
Obama opens by citing the “genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States” and hailing the “peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring” majority of protesters, while condemning violence, in part because it hurts neighborhoods “that are often already short on services and investment.” But it’s the strategic advice he goes on to offer that’s more interesting.
Obama argues that protest and electoral politics are complementary, with both playing important roles. “The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable,” he writes, noting that protest is often the only way marginalized communities can get any response from the powerful. But “eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices—and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”
And while Obama will certainly campaign for his former vice president, Joe Biden, to be the next president of the United States, here he focuses not on the White House or even on Congress. ”It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct,” Obama points out. “Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well.”
These are all very often low-turnout elections that can be shifted through local organizing. (Obama doesn’t mention it in this piece, but exactly that has begun happening in some places—though there’s a long way to go.) In other words, he rejects an opposition between protest and politics: “We have to do both.”
Obama has one more large piece of advice for activists: Get specific, because “the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.” To that end, he offers a report and toolkit from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a resource page at the Obama Foundation.
”I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting—that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life,” Obama writes in conclusion. “But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.”