"Yes We Can" stand in the way of Black Resistance
What kind of society are we in where a war criminal has a moral high ground?
Former President Barack Obama authorized 542 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians, according to The Council of Foreign Relations. His predecessor George Bush is widely regarded as a warmongerer, and yet Obama OKed ten times more drone strikes than Bush did. Mark Halperin and John Heileman wrote in their Double Down book that Obama once told aides “turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
He was most likely employing dark humor, but the reality of that statement reflects an acceptance of amorality that belies his dignified public image. He was an enemy of peace, and his estimated 3.2 million deportations demonstrates that he was an enemy of undocumented people during his administration. And even still, years after his term ended, he’s found another group to put in his crosshairs: the radical resistance.
In September, when NBA players were set to carry out one of sports’ biggest acts of resistance by striking against police brutality, Obama stepped in to urge them to continue playing. During a Good Luck America interview promoting his A Promised Land memoir, he called demands to defund the police too “snappy.” But liberation isn’t about amenability. Abolition is about embodying “snappy” — and more intense verbs if need be. Radical protesters seeking to abolish the police, and abolish capitalism, aren’t looking to achieve their goals through democratic consensus. Obama is well-read enough to know that, but he’s resolved to be willfully ignorant just to stand in the way of Black resistance. He’s become the DNC’s most effective attack dog ever.
Obama was under an unprecedented microscope as the first Black President. He faced the usual pressure of an American President’s duties. But there was also an expectation that he would look out for us. In March 2008, while still campaigning, he came under fire when his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright was censured by the press for proclaiming that terrorism on American soil was “America’s chickens coming home to roost.” Some felt like Obama cowered by distancing himself from Wright’s rhetoric, while others contended that he was making a studious move to protect his electability. He reflected that Wright’s comments were a consequence of America’s "tragic history when it comes to race” during a March 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech. The moment was the first example of him seeking to bring together both sides of a binary, this time in defense of Black people. The Obamas officially left Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ when Wright doubled down with eugenics adjace-theories about innate differences between white and Black people.
His distance was understandable at that point. The way Obama sought to initially hold onto their relationship reflected that perhaps, once elected, he’d be more measured than most Presidents when it came to engaging with Black people, including the Black resistance. Most radical movements were on the fringes of American consciousness in 2008. It was mostly during Obama’s second term that Black Lives Matter and other liberation movements gained national prominence while protesting state-sanctioned violence. Those freedom fighters soon realized that Obama would have no sensitivity for them.
After Darren Wilson was found not guilty for the murder of Mike Brown, Obama attempted to police Ferguson protesters by proclaiming that, “first and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law.” And while he noted that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, and championed Rosa Parks for helping “change America,” he said there was “no excuse” for the 2015 Baltimore uprising and called protesters “thugs” for their impassioned response to state-sanctioned violence. He had no problem employing white supremacist rhetoric to shame protesters who were continuing the same Black liberation movement he claimed to revere so deeply.
History will show that President Obama was on the wrong side of so many crucial moments for Black liberation struggle. Still, there were Black people who carried optimism that he was merely saying what he had to say to keep both sides of the aisle placated, and once out of office, he would be more honest about his feelings toward the movement. But in hindsight, that was naivete. His allegiance is to the DNC, and he’s reinforced his stance since leaving office. Artwork placing him alongside freedom fighters like MLK and Malcolm X look like “one of these things is not like the other” graphics.
LeBron was reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X this summer. He told Taylor Rooks that the book made him realize that the oppression that spurred the ‘60s Black Liberation movement is still going on today and that “the Negro” would be “powerful, if we unite, be together, stand strong cause there is always going to be obstacles.” Obama was an obstacle when he urged him to keep playing the day after he resolved to leave the NBA bubble in protest of Jacob Blake’s shooting by Kenosha, WI police. The players got some concessions from the NBA, including getting the league’s Governors to let them use arenas as voting stations in November. But those gestures paled in comparison to the radical impact that striking would have had.
The Bubble prevented $1.5B in losses for the NBA. But imagine if the strike divested those funds. Imagine if the NBA establishment and their corporate partners had to reckon with not getting that financial boon because players resolved that they wouldn’t be labor for a system (or entertainment for a country) that had no respect for their humanity. We love the NBA, but I’m sure we love the idea of equality more. LeBron (and the Clippers) had the right idea, but instead, the bread and circuses continued — in part thanks to Obama.
The players called him for advice, and he imparted the importance of sustaining the status quo — even if it has no love for Black people. It was his job as a President to “maintain order,” and he continues in that role today, banking on his goodwill with Black America to dissuade any dissension with flimsy, establishment-protecting adages that don’t stand up under any scrutiny.
That’s exactly what happened last week when he told Good Luck America that “Defund The Police” wasn’t a good slogan, surmising that “you 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.” But as US Representative-elect Cori Bush tweeted, “It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive.”
Obama’s comments are a projection of his “great compromiser” praxis. He’s credited by “both sides of the aisle” for being able to sway them toward middleground on certain issues. Perhaps the centrist should sit this one out, though. People who want the police gone aren’t looking for compromise. In fact, they’re looking not just to abolish the police, but the settler-colonial state that depends on it. Defunding the police and rerouting their budgets to the communities they terrorize would benefit the entire country, including his native Chicago. Obama’s dismissive, reductive comments did the Democratic party’s bidding by throwing cold water on a simmering flame of resistance.
Earlier this year Obama also “nudged” Bernie Sanders out of the Democratic Presidential race in order to support his former VP Joe Biden, a safer candidate. Biden reportedly feared an “ideological jihad” from Bernie, whose campaign promised free universal healthcare, college for all, elimination of medical and college debt, and policy to provide housing for all. He vied to end economic inequality. Who could be mad about that besides those who benefit from economic exploitation? Sanders vied to fight for the people. Obama fought for America’s wealthy oligarchy by convincing Sanders to drop out of the race. Once again, Obama chose the democratic status quo over the people.
Obama got elected by stoking optimism with stirring speeches and lofty slogans like “Hope” and “Yes We Can. But he sold “hope” through a hopeless system. He faced pushback from the GOP on most issues, which won him sympathy with some supporters. But that fracture has nothing to do with his fervor for drone strikes or deporting hoards of people simply seeking a better life. More than anyone else, he’s the biggest example of the fallacy of “Black representation.” He’s suave enough, and embraced rap enough in office to sway Black people, but his track record reflects a devotion to white supremacy. Someone who fights to protect the oppressive establishment has no guidance to give a resistance movement.
Instead of feeling any disappointment from this circumstance, perhaps it’s just another learning lesson about the two-party system’s low ceiling and ask ourselves some questions: What kind of society are we in where a war criminal has a moral high ground, and how do we get to a better place?
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