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.