James Clark

Why Obama Is Wrong About Activism

25 April, 2016

There is a section from a Obama’s recent town hall meeting in London about activism and social movements doing the rounds this week. The part that seems to have caught most people’s attention is the part where he says, in relation to the #BlackLivesMatter movement “You can’t just keep on yelling”.

I would recommend watching the full answer (about 10 mins) because for me, this moment really gets to the heart of what I find so frustrating about Obama. (The section starts at 37:45)

He starts by talking about why he initially supported civil unions over marriage equality, which mostly seems to be that he wanted to find a compromise that worked for conservatives. This is hardly the only issue he has shown those instincts. Many times he has started on an issue by trying to find a compromise he could get Republicans on board with. And that is what is so frustrating. This assumes defeat before the fight has even occurred — it assumes weakness. Rather than reaching to the source of his power — the movement his campaign built — he first reaches to the enemy. It shows he thinks he is operating from a position of weakness, which says to me he doesn’t really believe in the power of social movements. Even when he goes on to say how his mind was changed on marriage equality by the movement, he talks about the success the marriage equality movement had in conservatising itself rather than successfully queering society. In his mind. real success for the movement was finding a compromise, not pushing for more ambitious wins.

And then there is the way he conceptualises power. The way he describes activism and social change is frustratingly narrow. He talks about activism being used to simply to get attention. But once you have the attention of “those in power” the only way to achieve change is to “come to the table”. But I don’t think that’s the only way to achieve change, and in fact I think coming to the table has been one of the reasons progressive movements have faltered so much for the last few decades. Movement leaders are strongest when they are leading the movement, not doing deals with power.

Activism should be about getting attention of those in power so we can have a seat at their table. The point of activism (or at least my activism) is to change the way the table is set and what room it’s in. It’s about building power so that the conversation doesn’t happen at their table but at ours.

To say that activism is simply “yelling” to get attention and that real progress only happens “in the room” fundamentally misunderstands how real social change happens. It seeks to diminish the grievances of those who do not have access to power while legitimising systems of power that cause these injustices.

We should absolutely keep yelling, because there is too much injustice not to. And if we’re making them so uncomfortable they are willing to make concessions to stop us, it shows that what we are doing is working, so we should keep going.


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Hey, I'm James Clark. I’m an organiser, writer and social movement nerd based in Melbourne, Australia. You can read more about me here.