On Monday morning, former President Barack Obama posted a statement on the wave of protests and police violence rocking the country, celebrating peaceful protesters and calling for fundamental reform of America’s police forces. It’s a perfectly fine statement by Obama’s standards: compelling, not extraordinary.
But comparing what he said to the angry tweets President Donald Trump is busy firing off reveals just how badly the White House’s current occupant is failing.
Obama’s first major point is that the protesters resorting to violence are a small group; the vast majority are peaceful protesters coming out to demonstrate against severe and ongoing injustice:
First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.
On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.
Trump has not issued any kind of formal statement supporting the legitimate aims of protesters or calling for reform of police departments. On Twitter, he has worked overtime to cast the demonstrators as dangerous “anarchists” who need to be put down:
Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
Obama’s second core point that is that reform to the police and criminal justice system requires political engagement at the local level. Demonstrations are good, but they need to be followed up by electoral organizing and voting aimed at empowering reformers at the city and county level:
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. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.
While Obama is specific about creating change at the local level, Trump is treating the protests as an opportunity to exploit widespread fear for his reelection campaign. Monday morning, he tweeted repeatedly about the presidential election on November 3 — including the allegation that “Sleepy Joe” Biden is in league with anarchist demonstrators who, he strangely claims, want to raise taxes:
Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more. Joe doesn’t know anything about it, he is clueless, but they will be the real power, not Joe. They will be calling the shots! Big tax increases for all, Plus!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2020
Third and finally, Obama outlined the kinds of specific policy proposals that could concretely reduce police violence against African Americans — and provided links to lists of organizations working to enact these policies, for those Americans interested:
Finally, 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. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.
But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.
Trump, who is currently in office and thus has far more power to put pressure on police to reform, does not seem interested in any sort of policy solution. His most notable policy response to the weekend’s violence has been an announcement that he will declare “antifa” a terrorist organization — an idea that not only fails to respond to the root cause of the protests but is also incoherent and legally impossible:
The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
The last president condemned rioting, but also correctly identified police violence as the root cause of America’s current unrest and proposed ideas for how citizens and elected officials could work on reducing them. The current president has painted peaceful demonstrators calling for such change as a bloc of violent anarchists, and tried to use the misleading label “antifa” to categorize their behavior as a form of terrorism.
The contrast could not be clearer.