Marissa Johnson was Right: The Politics of Silence at the Bernie Sanders Rally

(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 Reagan Jackson

Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders got an unexpected welcome as he addressed a crowd at Westlake Center last Saturday. “Thank you Seattle for being one of the most progressive cities in the United States of America,” he said, shortly before being stripped of the mic by Black Lives Matter activists Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Janae Johnson. 

The reaction was vitriolic. Chants of “Let Bernie Speak,” escalated to boos and “Get off the stage” as PSARA President Robby Stern, one of the event’s lead organizers, tried to peacefully navigate the situation. “Stop attacking your allies,” someone from the crowd yelled. “You’re ruining everything. He’s fighting for you.”

Stern turned to the audience and reminded them that they were actually in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and had been since the beginning. “We’re being reasonable,” he said conceding the stage to Willaford and Johnson when it became clear that they would not be denied the opportunity to address the crowd.

Within the hour my facebook feed was alive with the news that they had shut down the rally. My initial reaction was one of confusion.  Sanders, known as one of the few progressive politicians who has been a staunch advocate for justice would be a natural ally for the Black Lives Matter MovementWhy his rally? I wondered.

Unable to attend the rally myself I tried to watch it on Youtube. My first search yielded several pages of two minute clips depicting two angry black women raising their voices almost unintelligibly, one of them threatened to shut the rally down.  Many of the videos I encountered had been edited with voice overs denigrating the actions of the women. My confusion and disappointment quickly turned into disgust as I waded through comment after comment ranging from passive aggressive critiques like: “this isn’t good for ‘your’ movement” to abrasive and outright racist dogma like “Those animals!”

Even the mainstream media coverage proved uninformative. I watched clip after clip trying to discern what had happened. Though Sanders was the one interrupted, it was truly Johnson who was silenced because everyone was so focused on her anger that they missed the message entirely.

When I finally watched an unedited version of the rally , I realized that what Willaford and Johnson did was akin to the same bravery displayed by Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole and removing the Confederate flag. Hijacking that rally, more than a mere interruption, was an intervention to the status quo of white supremacy lurking beneath the façade of liberal, ACLU card holding Seattlites. Effectively two black women stood on a stage in front of thousands and announced that white people would not get to dictate the terms of this revolution.

I realized in bearing witness to what actually happened, that I had been asking the wrong question. The question isn’t why they chose the Bernie Sanders rally. What happened had less to do with Bernie Sanders and more to do with the fact that the mental illness of white privilege has become so out of control that people who look like me are literally being killed in the streets. I understand that people wanted to hear Sanders speak, but what I need my white liberal allies to understand and come to terms with is that the time for politeness is over.

My question is:  Why in one of the most “progressive cities in the United States” is there still resistance to the radical notion that my life matters?  The grief, the rage, the fear and the anguish we live with on a daily basis can no longer be contained. It shouldn’t be. And we won’t be silenced.  There were those who thought it inappropriate when black activists sat down at white lunch counters or integrated white schools. My hope is that history will look back on these years and this movement as the turning point when being polite and appropriate became less important than black people being able to live their lives with the same basic human rights that we all deserve.

The real question is are we ready to be a city so progressive that there is room for dissent, room for honest and emotional dialogue, space where we can strip away the social niceties and delve into the gritty truths we must face in order to enact real change? Seattle, I dare you to try. If you want to wear the progressive crown, prove you deserve it.

Below is a transcription of the welcome Johnson had for Bernie Sanders, the wakeup call to all that change is coming. Are you willing to be ready?

“My name is Marissa Janae Johnson cofounder of BLM Seattle. I am organizer that is part of the national  black lives matter network. WE have a message for you and a message for Bernie, but first we wanted our chance to welcome Bernie to Seattle. I was gonna tell Bernie how racist this city was filled with progressives, but you already did it for me. Thank you. Now that you’ve covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism I will formally welcome Bernie Sanders to Seattle.

Bernie Sanders, I would like to welcome you to this place called Seattle, which is actually occupied Duwamish land, stolen and hypocritically named after Chief Sealth. We are located in King county where the silhouette of Martin Luther King reigns high while we spend $210 million dollars building a new jail to imprison black children.

Welcome to Seattle where the Seattle police department have been under federal consent decree for the past three years and yet has been riddled by use of force, racial profiling and scandals throughout the year. I’d like to welcome you Bernie to Westlake where we’ve said Black Lives Matter on Black Friday. We shut down Westlake and we shut down the tree lighting and we have anointed this land saying we will fight for black lives no matter what it takes.

Welcome to Seattle where the Seattle Schools Department suspend black students at a rate 6 times higher than their counterparts. Bernie, welcome to Seattle where we have undergone intense gentrification in the Central District which used to be the only place where we black people could live legally in Seattle. Welcome. This is what we have to deal with here.

As its already been said, tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the ruthless murder of Michael Brown. It is time that we honor that here and now. Bernie says that he’s about the people and about grassroots movement. The biggest grassroots movement in this country right now is the Black Lives Matter Movement. So right now we’re going to honor this space and we’re going to honor the memory of Michael Brown and we’re going to honor all of the black lives lost this year and we’re going to honor the fact that I have to fight through all these people to say Black Lives Matters. That I have to get up here in front of a bunch of screaming racists to say My Life MATTERS.

So what we’re about to do right now is do what people across the country are doing this weekend and have done since the day Mike Brown was murdered and left in the street. We are going to have a moment of silence for Mike Brown for four and half minutes which is representative of the four and a half hours that his body lay in the street. And we’ll start when everyone is silent.”

Featured Image: Democracy Watch

7 thoughts on “Marissa Johnson was Right: The Politics of Silence at the Bernie Sanders Rally”

  1. Your last line of your 4th paragraph of the transcript is inaccurate. The correct version of the last line of the 4th paragraph of this transcript should read as follows:

    “That I have to get up here in front of a bunch of screaming white racists to say My Life F**king Matters.”

    You forgot a couple parts in there, that I think matter.

  2. Just days after being shouted down at the Netroots Nation conference, Bernie Sanders met with Symone D Sanders. During their initial meeting, the two had an hour-long conversation about how the Senator could stay in touch with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. She told him that there was a strong link between racial inequality and economic equality, which he has since integrated into his campaign.

    Bernie offered Symone the job as his Press Secretary at the end of their meeting. I would imagine her first job was helping to draft his platform on racial equality.

    A few days later, on 25 July, Bernie addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Council, one of the premier African-American civil rights organizations, of which MLK was head. I urge you to read Bernie;s address to the SCLC here:

    So Bernie was doing his homework, he was eating his vegetables. He was doing what he needed to do. HE GOT IT.

    He did not deserve to be bushwacked by some self-described “agitators” in Seattle.

  3. Days later still not sure about some facts. Bernie was visiting and didn’t get his chance to speak downtown. I like it when we can listen to each other. Now I read that one of the interrupters is a long time tea-bagger. Further surprised that the Emerald didn’t give space to a reaction more critical of the interrupters. In my view we should not treat our friends like enemies.

    1. We asked for reactions both favorable and unfavorable. It isn’t that we did not post any of the unfavorable reactions, we simply did not receive any at the time. We have however recently received some submissions with a contrary viewpoint and will soon be posting. We appreciate you reading.