(Note: This is one in a trio of essays the Emerald solicited on Saturday’s interruption of Bernie Sanders at a downtown rally by members of Seattle’s Black Lives Matter movement, you can read the other two here and here.)
by Syd Fredrickson
For the last few days there’s not much else I can think about other than the community banter regarding an event that was held on Saturday at Westlake Park, in downtown Seattle. It was a celebration of the 80th Anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare, organized by Washington Community Action Network. Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak.
I wasn’t even there. I went only to the event where Bernie spoke at the arena where University of Washington Huskies play basketball and was one of the 12,000 who found a seat inside. I’d heard about the Westlake event, was glad when I heard what happened. this was not just a knee jerk response to defend the right of any Black person to interrupt a speaker but I saw it actually as an opportunity for progress, learning, media attention and ultimately votes for a truly progressive candidate for POTUS that I would not have thought possible a couple of weeks ago.
Inside the arena, I took a photo of the large crowd on my phone while Bernie addressed us, and posted it to Facebook. Someone said, “Too bad his mike was hi-jacked… didn’t even get to hear him speak” as a comment to my post.
I wrote back: “I say it was justified. Bernie now is more explicit in talking about high unemployment rates for Black & Latino youth, failure of the so called war on drugs, mass incarceration (US has more people in prison than any country on earth), lives ruined by prison records & time served for nonviolent crimes; how police brutality & lack of accountability for officers is out of control. Maybe it felt awkward but I see it as a win/win for BLM & Sanders campaign in the long run. I support what the women did…. Bernie has high level of access to media, there were low barriers to security at that venue and timing was right. He is both an avenue to do something more about this and represents the mix of things so repressive in our country of white male establishment. I understand some people being disappointed in not getting to hear Bernie speak but it’s a slight inconvenience since his platform, words, emails & videos are available easily; people can get his message in other ways. BLM doesn’t have access to the media every day. It was an angry move but a good & righteous move to get national media attention for BLM & the marches scheduled for today (Sunday), which wouldn’t otherwise have happened.”
I told the person that maybe one day they could say with pride, when this moment is documented in history books the way that the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley took off, “I was there when they grabbed the mic and spoke up for black lives.”
Upon reflection, I found a few more points worth conveying to friends who continued to complain that they weren’t “real” BLM representatives. I don’t care. They didn’t have to be and don’t need permission from BLM central or anyone else in my opinion.
I don’t feel that sorry for people who were inconvenienced by not getting to hear Bernie talk. And we need not feel sorry for Bernie that he didn’t “get” to talk there at Westlake. He could have addressed the concerns or offered an apology for not acknowledging BLM sooner, perhaps pledging a sit down meeting with BLM representatives at a later time. He might have told the crowd there that he wanted to allow them time. But he did not. Senator Sanders has plenty of places to speak and be heard. He and his campaign have already benefitted from such confrontations Certainly he is the most progressive candidate for POTUS in the Democratic Party, which made it all the more strategic and sensible for someone to take the mic at a low security venue to have the media’s and the audience’s attention.
I consider it a win/win for these young women and their closest allies to feel the power and the consequences of taking on white male establishment head-on in the way that they felt was necessary. And for Bernie, more engagement, more media and more name recognition across the country. Perhaps most importantly he can inspire more broad participation in this experiment we call democracy, to gain recognition from the large number of apathetic people who see no reason to care about electoral politics by truly including their concerns in his platform. Whether he wins the race or not – he has a chance to have real dialogues with those who have less access, bringing these discussions forward into mainstream consciousness, since ideas once born do not easily die.
Sanders appears to be addressing racism with staff trainings, internal hires (Symone D. Sanders as national press secretary), adding on the new Racial Justice part of his platform. He now is publicly addressing police brutality & lack of accountability for officers not abiding by the law and for proper investigations and punishment when they are out of line.
I understand some being disappointed but it’s a slight inconvenience. Isn’t it just egotistical name dropping to say you saw a candidate in person? So what, if they are not going to incorporate the needs and demands of the larger community who are fighting for their lives in this disparate system? People seem overly attached to be able to say they heard Bernie speak in person, and impatient to not have things go their way.
It shook things up. I support that. People haven’t turned out in streets by the thousands for BLM marches to demand more police accountability here in Seattle. No. It’s easier and safer to go hear a candidate for POTUS speak. It’s part of the dominant white culture to want things to be regulated, rule-following and polite. I think we need a mix of style and tactics. I think direct action is needed to shake people out of complacency over the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police. So, Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Johnson got media, LOTS of social media, and the attendees’ attention.
Bernie has his own legacy of civil rights activism but he’s not where he needs to be to be in dialog with the current grassroots movements – which he explicitly says he is fighting for, and members of which he asksto stand with him. He has started, but even more than he has so far, he needs to respond with more words and actions giving publicity to structural racism, not only jobs and economic disparity if he wants a political revolution – as the campaign slogan says.
Movements are loosely defined and people self-select to be in it or supportive of it, the status of which can change from day to day. BLM like all grassroots movements are not clubs or staffed nonprofits with official memberships or elected spokespersons. It is part of white culture to want things regulated, to be rule-following and to go as expected with high value placed on people being polite. I think even if there’s no consensus within BLM about whether it was strategic or not, whether they could have done it “better” or not, I believe those who took the stage have a right to say they are part of BLM.
There is an official BLM organization founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, but I am not sure what that means in terms of who can speak on its behalf. Also there are at least two Black Lives Matter Seattle community pages on Facebook. One now is called “Black in Seattle” and another one had over 1400 people affiliated or “liking” it before this week so it’s not something that was just put up a day before Bernie came to town. In any case, whether there are some pledges made by locals or dues paid to be officially affiliated with the national group, I do not see any elected officers or spokespersons listed, nor policy about official spokespersons. I instead read that they support a diversity of tactics, and goals include “broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.”
Some people may not like the two Seattle women’s actions or their religion, their past affiliations or personalities, but the movement is diverse and amorphous meaning loosely defined and decentralized with autonomy for self-expression.
White people’s egos were bruised being called supremacist; get over it. For those of us living in this system and who have white privilege, we are benefiting from it, like it or not. There are hurts and bumps along the way of unlearning and undoing racism. Of course not every white person is trying to literally kill black people, but each egoistic and bigoted action pins a tiny nail in a coffin–keeping oppression in place and pervasive in all of our institutions and social interactions.
NOTE: Several Seattle based people have written reaction pieces to the incident, notably Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal whose FB post was run as a guest op-ed in The Stranger, and an article by Ijeoma Oluo for The Seattle Globalist, who wrote, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the racial divide in Seattle. Since these are written by people of color and express my sentiment which is in no way unique, I want to refer people to these pieces.
I also tip my hat to Tim Harris, the Founding Director at Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project who wrote: “I get that some people are mad about what happened Saturday, but most of the anger I’m seeing feels toxic. Especially so is the condemnation of one protester as a right-wing, Tea Party, god forbid, CHRISTIAN! And the evidence is a facebook mention that she had a Sarah Palin button on her backpack in high school. Right. That pretty much settles it. Would you write off Philip Berrigan for his Christianity? People really need to take this shit down a few notches.”
Lastly, I give the final word to someone not in our local area. I bow down to the eloquence of Dominique Hazzard of Washington, DC who posted on Facebook:
“People are always wanting to know—why are black people rioting? Why are they interrupting…Why are they shutting down Bernie’s campaign stop?….I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up.
Yesterday, this piece of Bernie Sanders’ public platform did not exist. Yesterday, after months of the BLM movement gently critiquing Sanders and pushing him to do better, two black women fucked Bernie’s shit up. Today, a Racial Justice platform exists.”
Dominique astutely continues: “Being strategic is not about looking cute to people on the internet, it’s not about how many random people agree with what you did. It’s not about whether your target likes you right afterwards. BEING STRATEGIC IS ABOUT GETTING RESULTS…. IF YOU WANT TO BE STRATEGIC, you target the people with power who are in your sphere of influence, and who can actually be persuaded to give you what you want. [He] is going to feel the pressure, and you will likely get results…. As someone who will be debating Hillary Clinton and can push her on positions, he can give us something. Folks are taking advantage of that. I call that strategic.”
[Emphasis mine. –SF]