On January 10, when Barack Obama returned to Chicago to give his last speech as president of the United States, I could feel the city hold its breath and hold back tears. I live in Hyde Park — Obama’s old neighborhood. Here one can feel the pride Chicagoans have for Obama more than in most other parts of the city. A plaque where he and Michelle had their first date sits at the corner of 53rd and Dorchester. In the Cove Lounge on 55th St., a six-foot mural of his grinning face looms opposite the bar, and on January 10, hours before his speech, he dined at Valois in the heart of the neighborhood, while people eagerly waited in the Chicago chill hoping for a glance of our soon-to-be-former president.
I cannot feel that pride in Obama’s legacy. In February of last year, Black Lives Matter Chicago founder Aislinn Pulley — my colleague and friend — wrote a piece explaining why she declined an invitation to the White House:
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I was under the impression that a meeting was being organized to facilitate a genuine exchange on the matters facing millions of Black and Brown people in the United States. Instead, what was arranged was basically a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president. I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it.
A significant part of our work as Black Lives Matter Chicago is to support families of police and state violence, and to work with them in demanding justice for their lost loved ones. We hold marches, we organize vigils, we build counter-narratives to police accounts, and we uplift the real stories and lives of those lost to police violence and systemic neglect. The Obama administration has only ever shown fleeting interest in supporting these families victimized by police.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has repeatedly addressed racial tensions in the country. Unfortunately, his speeches have rarely led to substantive action. In November 2015, when the tape was released of Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times in the back by Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer Jason Van Dyke, Obama merely stated that he was “deeply disturbed” by the content of the video. In the same breath, he thanked us for keeping the protests peaceful.
He said nothing of this being a clear pattern of police violence in Chicago. He said nothing of police accountability. He said nothing of the fact that the tape was intentionally withheld for over a year until after the reelection of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a man Obama has repeatedly endorsed throughout his presidency. Rahm Emanuel: the same man who closed 50 percent of Chicago’s mental health clinics — most of which served already-under-resourced communities of color; the same man who has allotted 40 percent of the 2017 city budget ($4 million a day) to policing; the same man who closed dozens of neighborhood schools, most of which served under-resourced communities of color.
In his final speech, Obama stated that “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” but he failed to address the complicity of the state in maintaining these divides. Where was Obama after the police murders of Quintonio Legrier and Bettie Jones, who were both killed by police after 19-year-old Legrier called 911 in fear of his life? Where was he after the murder of Ronald ‘Ronnieman’ Johnson, who was shot in the back and killed by Chicago Police Detective George Hernandez? Where was Obama after the police murder of 16-year-old Pierre Loury, who was shot and killed by CPD in April 2016, or after the murder of Joshua Beal, who was killed by an off-duty police officer in the notoriously racist Mount Greenwood neighborhood south of Chicago?
Obama’s lack of action was negligent, and his silence about blatant racism in law enforcement only stood to normalize the daily terroristic actions of police in communities of color across the country. The recent report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on the Chicago Police Department (CPD), which found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force used predominantly against minority populations, stands as one of the few active responses to police violence from the Obama administration. This report shares with the country the same issues presented in the We Charge Genocide report from 2014, the same issues presented in the Police Accountability Task Force report in 2016, and the same issues residents have been talking, singing, writing, rapping, reciting poetry and making films about for decades. The DOJ’s analysis of corruption and systemic racism within the CPD conveniently fails to include the history of racism in policing, and the inherent brutality of policing culture. The report recommends new training models, better hiring practices, and a variety of other minimal reforms that do nothing to address the root issues of police violence against Black people in Chicago.
In the end, the DOJ report is likely to benefit the CPD as it receives praise across party lines for its minimal efforts to implement these ineffective, organizational reforms, and is given more money for the purposes of “better training” and “community policing initiatives.” Meanwhile, the fundamental structure of law enforcement, and the way it functions as a violent extension of the state, will remain unchanged.
Over the past month, across my Facebook newsfeed, activists, leftists and liberals alike have been singing Obama’s praises. But we are projecting our own politics onto him, characterizing him as the brother who claps back at Republicans, or the quietly disgruntled, leftist radical who has somehow been swindled into silence about his true politics. We make jokes about his “year of DGAF” (in which he was repeatedly depicted as a roguish hero clapping back at the villainous Republicans) and assume that he is as terrified about Trump’s presidency as we are — because he is “just like us.” The fear of Trump’s America — a very real fear — has inured many of us to the injury that Obama’s administration has inflicted upon countless individuals, families, and communities across the world. Many of us know these criticisms. Obama’s administration deported more than 2.5 million people during his presidency — more than any other president in history. He promised Israel (an apartheid state that, in 2014, killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, including more than 500 children) $30 billion in military assistance over the next 10 years. He expanded fusion centers — information sharing centers in which private tech companies and federal and local government agencies collaborate in the surveillance of citizens.
We cannot forget or downplay these violent aspects of his presidency. Doing so would be an insult to those he has hurt, and those whom these policies will continue to hurt for years to come.
We understand that Obama has had some real victories during his presidency. The Affordable Care Act has helped millions of Americans access health care, and with his health policy now on the chopping block, we feel its importance even more. Obama pardoned 212 people and commuted 1,715 prisoners’ sentences, including Puerto Rican freedom fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. He has granted commutations to more prisoners than any US president in America’s history.
We also understand that he and Michelle have been the targets of horribly racist abuse for the past eight years. We recognize the good he has done, the struggles he has undergone as the first Black president, and the personal connection Black America feels with him and his family. We can recognize these parts of Obama’s presidency, while still understanding that, regardless of his identity, Obama is still a neoliberal politician functioning in a political system that can never bring us liberation.
I have to remind myself of this when I feel myself falling into the trap of romanticizing Obama’s legacy. I have to remind myself that just because I fear a Trump administration does not mean I have to look back on the past eight years with rosy retrospection. We are allowed to want more from our country. We have to maintain our critical lens; we have to remember what we are fighting for: economic opportunity, freedom from poverty, access to education, knowledge of and connection to our cultures and histories, safety from state and intra-communal violence. These are the priorities we fought for under Obama, and we will continue to fight for them under Trump. Emboldened racists in law enforcement, government and on the street will make our struggle harder and more dangerous, but we will be uncompromising in our fight for liberation.
In his final words, Obama asked us to believe, “not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.” I do believe in our ability to create change, though perhaps not the kind of change that Obama imagined.