Why are Black Lives Matter Activists Targeting Bernie Sanders? Because He Gets It – Almost



Why would two Black Lives Matter protestors disrupt Bernie Sanders’ campaign speech on Saturday?

It’s the question everyone seems to be trying to answer.

Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, two women of color fighting for the destruction of white privilege.

Sanders, a 73-year-old Jewish former Civil Rights activist-cum-Presidential candidate.

You’d think they’d have plenty in common. You’d think they’d be on the same side.

And even after this weekend’s confrontation, you might still be right.

But the questions remain: Why shout down Bernie’s speech on social security? And why did they do almost the same thing to him and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley at Netroots Nation a few weeks ago? Why haven’t they targeted the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton? Why not Republicans? What do they hope to accomplish? Is someone putting them up to this?

Frankly, I don’t know the answers to most of these questions. But I can make some educated guesses.

So here goes.

Is someone putting Black Lives Matter up to this?

No. I don’t think so. All you have to do is watch the video of this weekend’s action to see these two women weren’t playing at anything. They weren’t following anyone’s orders. They’re either really good actors or they believe in what they’re doing.

What do they hope to accomplish?

Here I don’t need to guess. Black Lives Matter’s Seattle chapter put out a press release explaining this very thing. In short:

“BLM Seattle… held Bernie Sanders publicly accountable for his lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his blatantly silencing response to the ‪#‎SayHerName‬ ‪#‎IfIDieInPoliceCustody‬ action that took place at Netroots this year.”

The activists are protesting Sanders because they think he isn’t supportive enough of their cause.

However, the U.S. Senator from Vermont probably has spoken more on this topic than any other Presidential candidate of either major political party.

For instance, he specifically addressed physical violence against people of color, saying:

“Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Samuel DuBose. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry and they have a right to be angry. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this violence only affects those whose names have appeared on TV or in the newspaper.”

Why haven’t they targeted Hillary Clinton?

I don’t know. My guess is access. As a former First Lady, Hillary is protected by the secret service. Sanders isn’t. Moreover, both events where activists shouted down candidates had minimal security. They weren’t even individual candidates’ events. They were rallies with multiple speakers.

I don’t think they’re ignoring Hillary. It’s simply that they can’t get to her.

Some people, however, are inferring from this that her campaign may be behind these disruptions. Black Lives Matter is aligned with the Clintons and she’s using them to take out her biggest rival, they say. There are even a slew of articles accusing BLM of taking money from liberal billionaire George Soros, a long-time Clinton backer.

Here’s the problem with this theory: it’s completely unsubstantiated. There is not a shred of evidence linking BLM and Soros or Clinton.

I don’t doubt that Hillary would like to get BLM’s support. She’s clearly made overtures to them, changed her campaign rhetoric and otherwise tried to get them on her side. However, all the changes she’s made don’t amount to the degree BLM is already in line with Sanders. All Hillary really did was stop saying “All lives matter.” That’s not exactly a lot.

Moreover, BLM is not a political party. It is not nearly as organized as some people seem to believe. There are many chapters claiming to be part of BLM. There are many activists who consider themselves part of BLM. But there does not appear to be any major central organization sending out formal marching orders to these chapters.

I know it would be comforting to believe this is a political power grab by Clinton, but that just doesn’t appear to be the case.

Why not target Republicans?

This would make political sense, wouldn’t it? If you watched the GOP Presidential debate last week, you saw plenty of targets. There was lots of white privilege on display but very little talk about it. Dr. Ben Carson, the only African American candidate, even rhapsodized about how much society is over all that racial disparity nonsense these days. In an interview with Meet the Press, he called BLM “Silly.” You might expect activists to go after him or his colleagues.

Here’s why I think they haven’t done that so far. They know Republicans don’t care. Seriously. Why would they waste their time going after people who won’t listen, never have listened and never will? Unless you were doing it to make a bigger political point. Unless you were trying to contrast the Republican view with another one. But what other view is there to contrast it against?

Which brings me to…

Why target Bernie Sanders?

I think the answer is that Bernie almost gets it. He’s accessible, he’s mentioned these issues before and he seems willing to listen and evolve.

Think about it. When activists took the microphone this weekend, he could have called the police. He could have had them forcibly removed. But he didn’t. He gave them the podium and when it looked like they weren’t going to give it back, he left.

Do you think Chris Christie would have done that? Heck No!

So What’s Going on?

I think it comes down to this: the Obama Presidency is ending.

When he ran for office the first time, his campaign was transformative. It was a moment of incredible optimism. He wasn’t promising some tired old party agenda. He was promising Hope and Change. And his very candidacy and people’s reaction to it were proof that change really was coming.

For a few months there it seemed like White America actually cared about black people’s problems. We were all going to walk hand-in-hand into the promised land together.

But it didn’t actually work out that way. Though Obama has been a good president in many ways, he isn’t the transformative figure we thought he would be. When push comes to shove, he didn’t really do all that much for black people, either. And his very presence in the White House stirred up long repressed racist feelings from low class whites.

There’s a great moment in Richard Wright’s Native Son where the main character looks at a plane flying in the sky and can’t imagine how a black person could ever be up there at that height. For many people, Obama’s highest function has been a symbol. The most powerful man in the world is black. He shows that, yes, black folks actually can attain those heights undreamed of by past generations.

But it’s coming to an end. The next President will almost certainly not be African American. And those who do have a chance don’t even seem to be talking about issues that are important to the black community.

It’s as if American society is getting ready to sweep black folks back under the rug for another 200 years.

So yeah. I can understand why Black Lives Matter protestors are angry. People of color are still locked away in prison much more frequently and with much harsher sentences than white folks. That’s if they even make it to prison. Too many are being gunned down in the street and their killers are left to walk away free and clear. They’re even murdered in their own churches.

And we’re doing next to nothing to help.

Everywhere you look white privilege cages them in, and all these smiling, well meaning white faces don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it.

So here comes Bernie Sanders. Is he a man who seems to kinda get it? Does that make him more attractive or more infuriating?

Because though Bernie will talk about these issues, his main focus is not racial equality, it’s economic. He’s most concerned with balancing the scales monetarily.

Certainly this is important, but it’s not the same as destroying white privilege. You could reform the tax code and make sure everyone pays their fair share, but there would still be police officers barrel rolling on top of black teenage girls with the audacity to go to a mostly white swim party.

These are related issues, certainly, but not identical. In fact, if American society were a wall, the bricks might be income inequality, but the mortar would be racism. Why do poor white folks put up with the 1% trampling on them? Because the powers that be have given those poor whites someone they can trample – black folks. If you’re a white person working three jobs just to make ends meet, at least you can look at a black man and know you’ve probably got it better than him. You don’t have any money, but at least if the police pull you over, you’re probably going to survive the encounter.

That’s why I think Black Lives Matter activists are angry. That’s why they’re targeting Bernie.

It’s not that they hate him or want him to fail. He represents the one thing in which it is most painful to believe – hope.

I know people are angry on both sides. I know we can argue about tactics and timing, but we’re missing a real opportunity here.

Imagine if Bernie worked WITH Black Lives Matter. Imagine if he made dismantling white privilege a major plank of his campaign. Imagine if we were all united again.

And this time, imagine if we stayed that way well past election day.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

35 thoughts on “Why are Black Lives Matter Activists Targeting Bernie Sanders? Because He Gets It – Almost

  1. I hope people will begin to dig deeper into where the funding for the BLM movement comes from (George Soros) and to learn of his intent. He has funneled large amounts of money into Hillary’s campaign and he is waiting for a major return on his investment. Her polling numbers however are falling at an alarming rate and the protests and attack’s towards the only candidate who actually gives a dang about civil rights is being ramped up. Is there a correlation? I would think that line was clear. Bernie has spoken out against the billionaire class. They are afraid of him, which means they are afraid of us. We have way more power in this country than the super wealthy want us to know. We can take this country back, if We Stand Together. #FeelTheBern #Bernie2016 #WeStandTogether


  2. This a promising time to build multiracial alliances against police violence and white privilege. The terrible events of the last 2 years caught on video have angered and moved many, changed the conversation, outed the routine brutality and humiliation of dark-skinned folks, forced unusual scrutiny on police behavior, all for the good. Many whites care, many whites marched for days against such ugly events like the strangling death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. This promising moment to re-build multiracial alliances is exactly why the violent seizure of the podium was a big mistake, destructive of our chances for growing a movement. Bernie is from one of the whitest states in America and has not had to work with or answer to black constituencies in Vermont. He’s also been bad on the private war on public education. He can be reached and educated but not overnight, not in a hurry, and definitely not by violent disruption of his events. No matter how angry, impatient, righteous or sad any leaders are, they cannot address potential allies with such disrespect. Such disruption provokes confusion, disorientation, white guilt, and defensiveness in the crowd of potential allies who have a right to hear Bernie speak. After Bernie surrendered the mike for 4.5 mins, the protest leaders should have handed it back to him. We have a movement to build and it can’t be built on disrespect for potential allies. Seizures of the mike and podium also happened in the late 60s when the radical Weathermen thought an event was not militant enough. No good came of it.


  3. “Why would they waste their time going after people who won’t listen, never have listened and never will?”

    SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER! As long as it’s easy and has no risk. Much better to embarrass your friends than to anger your enemies, after all.

    There were thousands of open seats in the “happy hour” debate live on Fox News last Thursday–BLM could have showed up in force, gotten TV time on the most watched cable news network, and talked to folks like Rick Perry who is on the record trying to dismantle the Voting Rights Act. Instead, Bernie Sanders.

    “Imagine if he made dismantling white privilege a major plank of his campaign.”

    Imagine his campaign ending that same day, because that’s the only possible outcome of embracing Black Lives Matter activists who would call a bunch of Seattle liberals white supremacists. I also think that this line:

    “It’s not that they hate him or want him to fail. He represents the one thing in which it is most painful to believe – hope.”

    ….is infantilizing. These are adult men and women, and you’re basically calling their behavior a temper tantrum because they’re scared of hope.


    • I disagree that putting a fight against racism in Bernie’s campaign would sink his presidential bid. There are a lot of folks out there who would support it. Obama got elected because he had the minority vote and about a quarter of the white vote. Focusing on institutionalized racism would target that same constituency.

      I see your point about infantalization, but disagree. That’s not how babies think. It’s how people think no matter what age. The point is that this action by BLM isn’t political.


  4. I agree with your educated guesses on all the major questions. I would only ask what you mean when you say that “low-class whites” are responsible for the strong surge of racism in the Obama era. Do you mean working class whites? Or whites who lack “class” (i.e., manners and decency)?


    • I don’t mean to imply all working class white people are acting this way, but I think the 1% use white supremacy as a tool to subjugate the white working class. The bosses are throwing them a bone.


  5. Nature abhors a vacuum. Dismantling white privilege is all well and good, but what will replace it? To my way of thinking, elevating black privilege, elevating all peoples privilege such that all are equal should be the goal. Dismantling one groups advantage, toxic and destructive though it may be sounds too much like the assault on unions by other working people who have and earn less and have had their attention turned away from dismantling the system of oppression that victimized them. It only serves the interests of the bosses and owners as described by the plate of cookies meme where the owner takes all but the crumbs and gets the workers to fight each other for those crumbs. For the record, any aspects of white privilege that do in fact prevent all being equal must be dismantled, but I do not agree that white privilege occupies all the available space where equal privilege for all can take root and mature, that all parts of white privilege fully excludes any other privilege in that way. It’s not either or. Long story short, I’m tired of people being manipulated via their frustrations over unjust systems into throwing out the baby with the bath water and thereby being constantly turned against each other. Black lives don’t just matter, they matter just as much as everyone else’s in spite of the fact that America doesn’t value them as it does others. In this case there is a very fine line between making sure your friends and allies really get it by calling them out for their lack of complete understanding and resulting tepid support vs, trying to end racial divisions by the use of what operates as racial divisions. That is a line that I think BLM should not cross, they should not become the enemy they fight. They should make clear that they want to bring whites back across that line so that the white before privilege becomes meaningless and dissolves in the face of citizen privilege. I hope this all makes sense.


    • John, for the most part I agree with you. But why do you think removing white privilege will result in white subjection? The sight of two angry women of color can be scary to white folks, but the point is the same: Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Even when they’re not polite.


  6. Speaking as someone with 1 degree of separation from her, she’s a christian but a very motivated and radical activist. She’s in no way a Republican, a Hillary supporter are anything else. If some BLM people have received Soro funding, it isn’t her. BLM Seattle is some rightfully pissed off black women.

    They wanted BLM to be an issue in the presidential race. Now it is.


  7. Whether it was a political “hit mission” or not, the BLM community is not in unanimous support over the tactics used by these two women in Seattle (several apologies have been issued), and questions have been raised about their background and affiliation. It would be wise to not dismiss these questions. We can all agree that racial oppression is bad, but does it excuse an individual for anything they wish to do?

    The rally they “shut down” wasn’t even a Bernie Sanders rally, it was a social security event where Bernie would speak on that specific issue. When the protesters demanded, Bernie freely yielded the mic, let them say whatever they wanted (including calling the entire audience “racists”), and still they were not satisfied. At the time of this interruption, Sanders had already allied with the BLM movement and put out a racial reform plan. What did the protesters really want? They were preaching to the choir.

    Well here is the forerunner, “sipping on white tears:”

    It is possible to support the message behind BLM without supporting the actions of a few of their “members.”


    • Ed Detective, there are very few organizations where everyone agrees about everything. BLM is no different. However, the national organization has backed up what these two women did. I think the bigger problem here is white fragility. The picture you posted doesn’t anger me, I think it’s hilarious! Us white folks have to stop being so sensitive. Moreover, it’s not our job to approve or disapprove of how someone living in a racist society chooses to fight that power. People who look like me aren’t being killed by the state and letting the murderers walk free. I can get a loan or a job or a house without much of a hassle. But that’s not true for people of color. I want to hear what they have to say even if its not polite.


      • So if this girl hacked your blog, stopped you from making any posts, demanded solutions (then still didn’t let you post after you gave what she wanted), then called you a racist and told you to stop crying about it… everything’s fine about that? Morally OK? No hypocrisy there?

        There is a way to empathize with someone’s oppression and understand where they are coming from, without automatically jumping to the defense of whatever they do. How much are we willing to justify in the name of defense? Certainly not everything. What happens when civil disobedience becomes self-righteous antagonism? This lady feels alienated, but then alienates those who wish to help her. Hardly the best way to bring people together under the cause.

        As for the national movement supporting her. I have seen individual BLM members condemning her actions, as well as a public apology from the organization. The apology was sincere, although eventually retracted without explanation.


      • Ed, she didn’t stop Bernie from speaking. He spoke at a much larger venue later that day. And, moreover, he has learned from the experience. He is making racism a more central part of his campaign. He is taking the high road. And we are all the better for it.


      • She did stop Bernie from speaking to the thousands who had gone out to see him at that event. Bernie has learned and improved, yes. But that happened before the Seattle event, not because of it.


  8. Maybe you should have called the BLM activist and asked them as I am sure they would have provided you with answers. That way you wouldn’t have to guess. A little research would have provided you with the answers you seek. Or you could listen to some people who thought enough of the protesters to actually ask the protesters and posted the link here so people could listen for themselves… like I’m doing 🙂


    • You have a point, but this video was not available when I wrote the article. Moreover, I did quote what these ladies said from their press release. My article is not definitive. I hope that it makes people think and connects to some readers who would be less willing to hear thinks directly from these activists.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.