Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sanders interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters again

Way back in June, I said that if Bernie didn't start to attract people of color to his campaign, he was going to be dead in the water as a Democratic primary presidential hopeful.  That was three weeks before the Netroots Nation matter, and trust me when I say that almost nobody was talking about Sanders' troubles reaching people of color prior to Independence Day.

More recent events don't seem to indicate he is making progress.  For the second time in thirty days, he was targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters at a rally in Seattle...where he left before it began.  From the Seattle P-I:

 ...Sanders was just starting to address several thousand people gathered shoulder to shoulder at Westlake Park when two women took over the microphone. Organizers couldn't persuade the two to wait and agreed to give them a few minutes. As Sanders stepped back, the women spoke about Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown and held a four minute moment of silence.

When the crowd asked the activists to allow Sanders to speak, one activist called the crowd "white supremacist liberals," according to event participants.

After waiting about 20 minutes, Sanders himself was pushed away when he tried to take the microphone back. Instead, he waved goodbye, left the stage with a raised fist salute and waded into the crowd. He shook hands and posed for photos with supporters for about 15 minutes, and then left.

More from the Seattle Times:

“If you do not listen … your event will be shut down,” one of the protesters told organizers, who offered to let them speak after Sanders. After a back and forth with the screaming protesters, organizers relented and said the demonstrators could go first.

Some in the largely white audience booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests.

Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, shot back, “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,” accusing the audience of “white supremacist liberalism.” She cited Seattle’s own police problems, including an ongoing Justice Department consent decree over use of force.

Update: Video from the rally yesterday.  Before we get to the commentary, let's excerpt how the rest of Bernie's day got a little better.

Sanders later issued a statement on his website expressing his disappointment about the interruption.

In a written statement addressing the Westlake protest, Sanders said he was “disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands … I was especially disappointed because on criminal-justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.”

In a news release posted on social media, local Black Lives Matter activists said they were holding Sanders and other white progressives accountable for failing to support their movement.

Citing the anniversary of Brown’s death, they said, “We honor black lives by doing the unthinkable, the unapologetic, and the unrespectable.”

That's actually the best explanation of their actions I have read.

As an old white progressive myself, I have to admit to the same curmudgeonly discontent with the BLM protests that Sanders is feeling.  Maybe that's just my white privilege talking.  There are plenty of African American voices noting the mission fail of BLM, but it still doesn't make their protest against the only person who has walked the walk (and not just talked the talk) more comprehensible.  My well-renowned empathy of ten men is falling short here.  Dave Atkins at Political Animal says it best, at least for now.

In that vein, it’s reasonable to ask if forcing Bernie Sanders off consecutive stages is a useful strategy for bringing issues of police violence and structural racism to the foreground. On the one hand, doing so provides an opportunity for activists to make headlines and gain an audience among individuals who are supposedly allies but may not be doing as much as activists might like on their issue of choice. Certainly, climate activists and anti-war activists (among others) could leverage the same complaints. On the other, there is such a thing as bad publicity. And there’s a fine line between disrupting the activities of one’s allies to bring more attention to one’s issues, and being so aggressive with them that they actually become hostile to one’s interests.

That said, if these actions have done more damage than good, the fault lies not with the protesters so much as the event coordinators who have handed the disruptive agents the microphone at these events. No matter how righteous the disrupters’ cause may be, giving away the microphone to any non-scheduled element loses control of the event, altering the power dynamic in such a way that the candidate is forced to either adopt an apologetic and submissive position agreeing with everything being said by the upstaging individuals (certainly undesirable for many reasons), or to argue with them (even less desirable), or simply to walk away from the stage (the best of a series of bad choices.)

But giving away the microphone to protesters in this way isn’t just harmful to the candidate. It’s also harmful to the event organizers and ultimately to the protesters themselves as well.

The Black Lives Matter effort is headed down the same road as the Occupy movement.  Which is to say, marginalized and irrelevant.  And it would be a terrible shame if that happened, because what they are angry about is what Bernie Sanders, and I, and a host of other people who look like us are also angry about.

They're simply channeling their outrage in the wrong direction.

If the group engaging in civil disobedience is willingly granted the microphone at a managed event by the supposed oppressor, it’s nearly impossible for the disruptors to maintain the audience sympathy required to forgive the chaos and upset caused by the disruption itself. This is, of course, doubly true when the supposed oppressor is not an enemy but an ally within the tent. In order for an action of civil disobedience by an oppressed group to work, the oppressed group must actually remain oppressed in the context of the event. If they’re treated as equals with underdog outsider presidential candidates on stage, it simply looks like a circular firing squad of fractious activists rather than a civil rights movement speaking for the dispossessed without a voice. Once you have the stage and a microphone with a presidential candidate standing behind you (and you’re registered to vote!), it’s hard to gain sympathy for the claim that you don’t have a voice in the process.

That, of course, leads to a key question: why aren’t BLM protesters staging these disruptions at Hillary Clinton or Republican candidate events? The simplest answer is that they would be unlikely to be invited to the stage and given a microphone. But that is precisely why those are the events that BLM should be protesting.

The people who are handing over the microphone and helping them onto the stage aren’t the ones protesters should be taking advantage of for a cheap media opportunity. And event organizers should be mindful that providing such an opportunity for protesters doesn’t do them any favors, either.

Rosa Parks didn’t pick a bus in Berkeley; she picked one in Selma. If civil disobedience is the weapon of choice, it’s probably time to take that weapon to the real enemy.

Let's watch and see if Secretary Clinton -- or any GOP hopeful, for that matter; how about Ben Carson as a start? -- starts drawing some BLM folks to their events who want to take the stage.  Their success in doing so will convince me that they have a real movement focused on the agents who need to change -- and who will more likely be in the place to effect changes.

But I really don't expect Hillary Clinton or a single Republican candidate -- or any of their staff, supporters, or members of the audience on hand -- to react as calmly as Bernie Sanders.  We should find out if I'm right or wrong about that soon enough -- again, if BLM is properly organized.


Unknown said...

Any other candidate's staff would have had security physically remove the people causing the disruptions, regadless of how bad the visual would be.

It sort of reminds me of PETA's tactics, where attempts to get attention at any cost actually undermine the movement.

I understand trying to press the candidates on issues that matter. I just don't know...

Zacherydtaylor said...

It's not quite as bad as you make it seem although it does seem to indicate a problem which has only partially been addressed. First of all he has a much better record than Clinton who supported Goldwater while Sanders marched with MLK and later on he continued to support reform while Clinton support her husbands war on drugs targeting black people. Republicans are even worse, no further explanation needed for thsoe with heads out of sand.

Also he allowed them to speak and get their point across which is still worse than most of us white people realize. Since then I have heard a growing number of black people coming out on his behalf including "Little B" who says he handled it well.

Also at a relatively small event Bush was recently protested and the larger ones for Bush and Clinton don't let non-supporters close. So called security is preventing some of the most important issues from being adressed at grassroots.