Sunday Essay: Political Leaders & White Allyship

by Jon Grant

It has been difficult to watch the civic debate play out after Bernie Sander’s visit to Seattle when Black Lives Matter protestors interrupted his speech. Some of the discussion has been very good, but much of it has taken a bad turn. Many are asking, why Bernie Sanders? Isn’t he already on your side? Don’t you know his history on racial justice? Why not Hillary? Are they even real members of the movement?

These questions are misplaced. The question we need to answer is what is the role of the white politician in the era of institutionalized racism that hides behind a myth of being color-blind? Many white people agree that police violence should be addressed, but many felt targeting Bernie was wrong. Bernie is a truth-teller, and it is a rare thing for voters to get to hear a candidate who can so eloquently speak truth to power. But he has also faltered on the campaign trail to address racial justice until this point. He has been rightfully criticized for exclusively focusing his campaign through an economic justice lens. This ignores the system of institutionalized racism that reproduces state violence against black lives that is not just a result of income inequality.

In July, Black Lives Matter interrupted Sanders at another speaking engagement at the Netroots Nation forum, demanding he start addressing police violence against black Americans. There too, Sanders marched off the stage, and rather than engage members of the movement his campaign largely wrote them off. At the time there was no presidential candidate that made racial justice a central plank to their platform. As a white politician, this was an incredible opportunity that was missed to demonstrate to a black-led movement that he can be an ally to their cause. Why not focus on another candidate, like Hilary Clinton? Because if the movement can’t even get the most left-leaning presidential candidate in the race on board with prioritizing racial justice, then what vehicle remains to push the other moderate candidates on that issue?

Many white politicians quote the beautiful and foretelling words of Martin Luther King, Jr., often to align their beliefs with the civil rights movement, and to make a statement of their allyship to black Americans. Perhaps one of the most quoted of King’s prolific words is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But this wasn’t the quote that came to mind when the Black Lives Matter protestors took the stage in Seattle. A far less repeated quote from King came to mind, not repeated enough by white politicians:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Black lives matter. As a white candidate running for public office it is critical to not only commit to that belief, but to actively support protestors who advance its cause. Does this mean that support is blind? No. Does this mean audience members who waited under a hot sun at the Social Security rally shouldn’t be upset they did not get to see Bernie speak? No. Does this mean white allies have cause to walk back their support of the Black Lives Matter movement? Absolutely not. The reality is complex, and it is important for white people to remember the history of direct action in our own city and how writing off a movement for its tactics is a slippery slope.

Anti-racist activism has a long history in Seattle, and those who haven’t should pick up the book Seattle in Black and White which offers the rich history of our local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Direct action was one of the primary tools to fight against segregation in the 1960’s, where CORE activists would organize “shop-ins” at grocery stores that refused to hire black employees. Activists would load up grocery carts with non-perishables and jam up all the check-out lines so white customers could no longer shop at that store. As you can imagine, hundreds of white shoppers left the store mad at the CORE activists: but none the less, the impact was made as store by store due to the loss of revenue businesses decided to integrate their workforce. The white shoppers felt they were the target of the direct action, when in reality the business establishment was, and to significant effect. Direct action is not a tool to build consensus, it is a tool to move an otherwise unmoveable target. If white people today claim to support the work of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, they may not realize they are endorsing the same tactics used over this last weekend.

It is sad that the hard work of progressive organization’s like Washington CAN, Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, and others, who spent tireless hours organizing the event to raise immensely important issues surrounding Social Security were sidelined. But it doesn’t make sense to blame the protestors for this outcome, despite their direct role. The Sanders campaign had an opportunity to be more responsive to the specific concerns of police violence brought up by Black Lives Matter protestors earlier in July. Up until now, the campaign had failed to make it clear to protestors whether he would take a stand on these issues. As a U.S. Senator who has spent over a decade working legislation through the halls of Congress what Bernie Sanders failed to realize is that movements do not negotiate. They demand. It is on the politician to respond and move, not the other way around.

If the tactics used by protestors to get Bernie on their side seemed disproportionate – after all, Bernie is not a segregated grocery store owner, and in fact marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. – it is important to remember what we’re talking about here. The Black Lives Matter movement is literally the joint effort of a community fighting to stop its own murder. It should not come as a surprise that protestors embrace direct action given the high stakes, and it makes sense to recruit the most left leaning presidential candidate to be a vehicle for your cause. Judging the use of those tactics is not a useful exercise if we don’t remind ourselves of the gravity of the situation. Black Americans are twice as likely to be killed while unarmed as any other race. Black Americans are arrested at six times the rate of whites even though they do not commit higher levels of crime. Here in Seattle, there have been hundreds of cases of racial profiling and excessive force with our police department, but not a single officer has been fired for misconduct. Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to show solidarity with protestors and take up their cause early on, but instead chose to not engage and privately hone his message on police violence before going public.

When King said it is impossible to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” it is a precursor to struggle. The angry grocery store shoppers of the 1960’s could have chosen to accept the complexity of that struggle and their role in it, but they also had the privilege to write off the civil rights organizers. That is the same decision white people have today too. But for black Americans whose very lives are at stake, they do not share the privilege of deciding their place in the struggle. What has been even more disheartening is the throng of attempts to marginalize and delegitimize the voices of Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, the two protestors who took the stage with Sanders. And Seattlites have some serious reflection due after many audience members jeered protestors, some calling for them to be “tased” and yelling the painfully insensitive “All Lives Matter” on the anniversary of Michael Browns death. (Let’s put that phrase to rest, white people are not targeted by police in the same way people of color are.)

Yet despite this turmoil, Bernie Sanders has now taken up the mantle of racial justice, even collaborating with Black Lives Matter protestors in Los Angeles to have them speak to his biggest audience yet. Because, like many white progressives, he was eventually willing to put aside the tactics that brought him to the table and decide not to tune out, but demonstrate solidarity. That is exactly what white politicians should do, even when it can be far safer to not speak their views on race. We all have a decision to make about our role in the struggle for racial and economic justice, but we must remember that for some of us it is not a choice.

Jon Grant is currently running for Seattle City Council Position 8. He resides in South Seattle.