Earlier this week, I got in — not one but two — debates with good progressive friends about the wisdom of the BLM movement shutting down Bernie Sanders speaking at a Social Security and Medicaid event last Saturday in Seattle. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but I read something by Hamilton Nolan (whoever he is) at Gawker that gets me 66% of the way there. So I am going to piggyback on his essay to explain my take:
On Saturday, Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak to a crowd of thousands of supporters in a Seattle park. He never did; the event was shut down after a handful of protesters disrupted it in the name of “Black Lives Matter.” This was remarkably dumb.
Some caveats up front: 1) “Black Lives Matter,” like “Occupy,” is not a formal group with strict membership requirements. It is a banner, an overarching cause, a general proclamation of a set of political beliefs that can be picked up by anyone who cares to invoke its name. The actions of a few people should not, therefore, be used to try to tarnish that entire cause.
Yup. And part of the problem in the debates about “what BLM did” is that there is no centralized BLM leadership. When you think “BLM”, think “Tea Party”, but with a different set of goals. When I use “BLM” in this post, I am referring to those who say and believe that what happened in Seattle speaks for all BLM movement supporters, even though I do not concede that to be true. *I* am a BLM movement supporter, one of many who disagree with the tactics in Seatlle.
2) There are already plenty of conspiracy theories circulating in lefty circles about the group of protesters who disrupted the event, and their true motivations, and what they hoped to accomplish. I do not want to dive into a sea of unprovable suppositions, or overgeneralize about a broad cause. There have already been many tortured op-eds by progressives trying to painstakingly reconcile what happened. The fact is that this is not the first time that Bernie Sanders has been driven from the stage by Black Lives Matter protesters.
Agreed. The background of the protesters at the event is interesting. One of them was definitely once a Sarah Palin supporter, but what that means NOW, if anything, can only be guessed at. For the purposes of what I am saying, I will consider the background of the protesters to be irrelevant.
I simply want to talk about the wisdom of doing this.
It is stupid, don’t do it.
Is “Black Lives Matter,” drawing attention as it does to institutional racism, racist police practices, and other pervasive instances of racism in American society, a legitimate cause? Of course it is. It is perfectly appropriate for BLM to wave its banner in rallies, in protest marches, and in city halls. It is appropriate to wave its banner in neighborhoods, in meeting halls, in the media, and in the streets. It is even, I would argue, appropriate for protesters to stand up and raise their voices and be disruptive at campaign rallies for political candidates who are acting to reinforce and support the sort of racism that they are campaigning against.
One of the criticisms that gets pushed against people like me who were critical of BLM is that we’re trying to get black protesters to “be nice” and “not make waves” and not “shake up the status quo”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Direct action is not only a valid tactic, but in many instances, a necessary tactic. My gripe is not against direct action — it is against misdirected action.
Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, who spits venom about “illegals” pouring into America to rape innocent women, could use a good Black Lives Matter protest. Almost every Republican presidential candidate, in fact—who stumble over themselves competing to build a bigger wall on the border and who unerringly back the police state in word and deed—could use a good Black Lives matter protest. As could most Republican senators, and state governors, and a host of mayors and city council members and sheriffs.
But Bernie Sanders?
Let me stop again here and blunt what some might be thinking. I am not a Bernie Sanders supporter. I like much if not most of what he says. But I don’t think an 80 year old socialist can be an effective leader in this ultra-divided political climate. He would be a great king, but this is a democracy where compromise is actually necessary. I also doubt his bona fides on foreign policy. And a number of other reasons. So don’t tag me with “You’re in Bernie’s camp” assumption. You would be wrong.
Nor do I think Sander’s campaign is above reproach. He has many critics on the left for a number of reasons. The unbelievably awesome Larry Lessig, for example, is critical of Sanders, saying that Sanders has not put campaign finance reform at the top of his agenda. Like Lessig, I believe that you can’t solve the major problems of this country (including racial problems) without changing the way we elect people. And I’m excited about a possible Lessig campaign. But you don’t see Lessig, or other Sanders critics, storming the stage and shouting at Sanders like it is a Jerry Springer show.
Bernie Sanders? Bernie Sanders, of all presidential candidates, is the one that you choose to target on the issue of America’s structural racism? Bernie Sanders is the most progressive serious presidential candidate, and the most liberal, and the most vocal and wise on the issue of America’s entrenched and widening economic inequality. And should the Black Lives Matter movement care about economic inequality? Of course. The average white household in America has 16 times the wealth of the average black household. No group in America suffers from our nation’s economic inequality more than black people. Further, closing the racial wealth gap is probably the single most effective thing that any politician could do to help advance the cause of ending structural racism in America. This is because promoting progressive economic policies that work against the extreme concentration of wealth in small groups of people is something that politicians can actually do that has actual real world effects on racial inequality. “Giving nice speeches” is an example of a thing that politicians can do that tends to have little if any real world effect on racial inequality. I guarantee you that there are Democratic (and even some Republican) presidential candidates who are far more polished and smooth politicians than Bernie Sanders who are capable of giving speeches on race in America that sound far more pleasing and life-affirming to listen to than anything that Bernie Sanders says in his own plainspoken growl. And those candidates, who are heavily influenced by Wall Street donors, will go on to do very little to close the racial wealth gap in America, unlike Bernie Sanders.
So the question is: do you want someone who will do the things that will actually address the issues you care about? Or do you want to be pandered to better?
Many on the left find it hard to come out and say “this was stupid,” because they support both Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a misperception of the political landscape. Believing that a small group of angry young protesters did something that was not well thought out need not make you feel guilty or racist; rash and counterproductive things are what young people do. Screaming Bernie Sanders offstage is dumb because you support Black Lives Matter. For those perceptive enough to separate pretty slogans from actual policy prescriptions, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is the candidate most aligned with the group’s values. Stifling his voice only helps his opponents.
Go shout at someone who deserves it.
Here’s where I have a little pushback of my own for the Gawker opinion piece. While it is true that Sanders is, of all the candidate, the one most likely to be the best friend of the BLM movement, it is clear that the BLM movement doesn’t see it that way. The Gawker pieces doesn’t seem to understand this point. So I’ll address it.
The Seattle protesters (and perhaps the ones at Netroots) claim not to be interested in partisan politics. In fact, the Seattle protesters claim that that “white supremacist liberals” are actually the cause of the problem.
If that is indeed the position of ALL of BLM (and again, it isn’t, because BLM is just an umbrella name to describe a movement, rather than an actual organization), then BLM is in serious trouble. It is not liberals who can be blamed for the black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Progressive policies are not the root cause of this (and tellingly, no BLMed can point to one), nor are progressives guilty by reason of complacency.
Especially and including Sanders. Sanders had incorporated a searing critique of entrenched racism into his regular stump speech. He addressed the SCLC (MLK’s organization) talking about Sandra Bland and the need for officers to wear police cameras. When he addressed the national conference of the Urban League on August 7, Sanders rattled off the names of Brand, Brown, Boyd, Garner, Scott, Gray and Rice and presented his own standards. “Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve their communities, is unacceptable and must not be tolerated, he said. “We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter, and we must value black lives.”
All this was BEFORE last weekend. His reward was a public scolding by Seattle activists who prevented him from speaking at a Social Security rally, one of whom demanded the crowd “join us now in holding Bernie Sanders accountable for his actions.” What would those actions be? It wasn’t explained then or since. Maybe that’s because the people who supported the Seattle protests were too busy congratulating themselves and taking victory laps, while the rest of us shook our heads in embarrassment and disbelief.
It’s possible that the Seattle protesters didn’t know about Sanders’ statements over the past few weeks, but if so, then the organization that prides itself on using the new social media of the Internet to “spread the word” and organize encountered a massive fail.
Even if they had known, my understanding is that the Seattle protesters didn’t care about Sanders’ civil rights past (going back 50 years) or his recent statements about black lives. The BLM, I’m told, doesn’t care about partisan politics.
Which is all well and good, but then its focus on candidates of the 2016 election seems counterproductive to even its OWN mission. In any event, I don’t think they should care about partisan politics either. If a Republican candidate had the same background and positions as Sanders, he/she should be welcomed into the BLM fold as well. Being am equal-opportunity troll still means you are a troll (See Trump, Donald) (UPDATE: Speaking of Trump, he just held a short press conference. He said Bernie Sanders was “weak” when he allowed #BlackLivesMatter protesters to take the microphone at his rally… and actually threatened to physically fight them if they tried to do the same thing to him. Attention BLMers: you want to impress me? Don’t take your fight to Sanders who offers the path of least resistance because he’s on your side. Take it to Trump)
As an aside, yet ANOTHER defense offered by those who support the Seattle protests — and it is a common theme running through the larger debate — is that “white people” shouldn’t be telling “black people” how to run “their” movement.
This is absurd for a number of reasons. The first is, many people don’t see it as a movement refined to people of color. As Kennedy once said:
“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
It’s not “my” movement? Bullshit. Besides, if the people doing the killing are white, and I am white, and what they do reflects upon me (and apparently it does), then I’m not going to remain silent when I see a movement destined to fail.
Furthermore, I’m not criticizing the movement “as a white man”. The criticisms I have a color-neutral, and one way you know that is because my exact same criticism of BLM has been said by Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton, who became, as a result, pariahs within the BLM movement (more on that in a moment).
To suggest that my criticisms come because of my whiteness denies a central tenant of a belief that BLMers themselves hold — that I am a beneficiary of white privilege (I acknowledge that I am a beneficiary of a racist system, but that does not mean I cause or support it). I don’t check my color, and I am not conscious of it when I open my mouth to opine. However, it is helpful to the BLM movement that I am portrayed that way, and they will take advantage of liberal white guilt to advance that theory that all whites are racist. But it simply isn’t true. I know when I am being condescending on a racial basis — that it “feels” that way to a black person doesn’t make it so.
So returning the the point, who then can the finger be pointed when it comes to racial injustice? Go to the conservative blogs whenever a unarmed black person gets shot by white policemen. If they are talking about it at all, it is in defense of the police. The opposite is true of the progressive blogs. Compare the new media versions of the right and the left on the subject of racial homicides. Hell, compare the old media.
BLM supporters are quick to point out that racism is different now. It isn’t hoods and Civil War flags. No it isn’t. That’s too obvious. But that doesn’t mean it is mainstream progressive thought either. LISTEN to what is said on the very very white Fox News. None of them have hoods either.
Can progressives be taken to task for failing to fix the problem? Sure. For example, Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (or rather, the expansion of his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative) seems like weak tea to many, and I tend to agree. But failure to fix the problem is not the same as being at the root cause of the problem. BLMers seem to not know the difference.
So what is BLM’s problem with me and Oprah and Sharpton? Not hard to answer. We’re the older generation. And THAT, I insist, is really what this schism is about. Not progressive left against BLM, but rather, old (experienced) activists and younger ones. If I sound condescending in my criticisms to a young black BLM activist, my condescension is rooted in my experience, not my skin color.
One defender of BLM said that he had been involved in social activism for 7 years, so he’s not a neophyte. Seven years is good, but it’s not 37. And as other BLM activists have blatantly admitted, proudly, they don’t care about the past. MLK was then, this is now.
Each generation needs to find its own voice, so you certainly can understand where BLM comes from. If I grew up with black parents who were (probably) liberal and followers of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, and I came of age in world where young black people got shot and nobody seemed to care, I too might reject the world and politics of my parents (not just leftie politics, but the racist political system altogether) and start from scratch. So I get that.
But black lives matter. They matter more than white peoples’ feelings (as we often hear), but guess what? They matter more than black peoples’ feelings, too. I don’t care that “this ain’t your daddy’s revolution” as many BLM signs and websites like to say. Fidelity to being “now” — and using social media, and being leaderless, and being angry, and upturning the apple cart, and yada yada yada — that don’t mean shit if doesn’t yield change.
And the problem with BLM is that they waste time reinventing the wheel –thinking that their “new” brand of movement will get things done. In the meantime, black lives are at stake. But for some reason, it is more important to close their ears to (or even piss on) natural allies than to be pragmatic about ACTUAL change.
Not that the BLM cares about history, but the phenomenon of self-marginalization isn’t new. In the 1960s, you had a split between the militant Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Both engaged in direct action, so that factor is a wash. But who was the white power structure more afraid of — (a) Malcolm X and his threat to take democracy into black hands “by any means necessary”, or (b) Martin Luther King with his progressive coalition taking direct action (coupled with his ability to work within the system he was engaging)?
Martin Luther King was the threat.
Why? Because for all his talk and perceived militancy, Malcolm X had no method, no program, no “means” that would actually bring about long-lasting change. King, on the other hand, had shown he could move mountains. And when he crossed Pettus bridge on his way to Selma, it wasn’t just King and the SCLC; it was preachers and volunteers of every religion and race. (The only person to die in the march to Selma was a white woman).
But BLM doesn’t seem to care about that. “Coalition politics is sooooo 60 years ago, and we’ve got hashtags now!” So old farts like Oprah and me, we can sit on the side. That’s seriously what is going on today.
It’s too bad. Because social media is great for getting people to look at stuff. A black girl in Houston gets kneed in the back by a white cop at a pool party in Houston. Some guy with a cellphone records it. Bam!! People all over the world know about it before the day is over. That’s powerful and an incredible tool to harness.
But one need only look to the Occupy movement to see the shortcomings of relying just on that. At the end of the day, almost no financial reform came when Occupy took the tents down. Only one very low level guy has been prosecuted for the intentional financial crimes that resulted in a catastrophic worldwide depression that saw the USA alone lose trillions in net worth, and saw hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their hopes for retirement, or a house, etc. The best tthat can be said of the Occupy movement is that “income inequality” is a phrase people know, and it is sorta kinda a campaign issue in 2016.
Perhaps that was all the Occupy intended to do, so I won’t say it is a “failure”. But one thing is certain — by design or by accident, Occupy had no Act Two.
BLM is going the way of Occupy in that they think that simply exposing the problem is the same as fixing it. Unfortunately, people are aware of the race problem already. The mainstream media didn’t cover financial shenanigans because it wasn’t sexy and it was hard to understand, but they DO cover race wars. So the American public is aware of the problem (even conservatives who deny it is a problem are aware of the issue). At best, you’re either preaching to choir, or just annoying people who will resist you. At worst, you are annoying your allies.
So BLM needs an Act Two and a way to bring about change. But they are stuck in Malcolm X mode, engaging in divisive politics that marginalizes themselves, and specifically rejecting coalition movements That’s unfortunate.
I could probably write another post on what BLM should be doing, but that would take too long. The thumbnail version is this: act more locally. Police units operate and the city, county and municipal level. That’s where the rubber needs to meet the road. National politics and politicians can only do so much.
So demand “audits” or “report cards” from every police department. Have specific benchmarks that every law enforcement entity needs to meet. Some criteria might relate to hiring practices (i.e., does the racial make-up of the police officers reflect that of the population they serve), police distribution (i.e., do minority policemen police minority neighborhoods), data collection (i.e., is information gathered relating to the race of people stopped, frisked, detained, as well as the race of the cop), police training (i.e., prevailing model that is taught — self-protection model vs “protect and serve the public” model), police continuing education, views on use of cameras (not only by police but the public recording the police) and so on. Require local police departments to issue annual reports on these and other factors. Form joint legislative-citizen committees to address shortcomings that surface from these reports. Write and pass local legislation to correct flaws in the system (I, for one, think that government should not be permitted to negotiate with police unions on any issue mentioned above). And so on.
And if direct action is needed, BLM needs to take direct action at the local level against whatever entity is obstructing it. But don’t marginalize. BLM needs to understand, for example, how other groups — say, groups concerned about gun control, or groups concerned about income inequality — have issues that bear directly on the issues that concern BLM. And bring them in. Don’t piss them off and shut them out.
That’s what BLM needs to do, at a minimum.
That is, if it cares about black lives.
“Keep your eyes on the prize.”
– Folk song from 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement
LOOSE THREADS AND AFTERTHOUGHTS: I thought I would update this post to address a few items I didn’t touch. Some of them, I think, are obvious, but I seem to keep reading the same thing so….
(1) “The Seattle protest exposed the white supremacist liberalism that exists.” Nope. It really didn’t. Apparently, some people think that if you boo a rude black person who is stealing the mic, you are booing because the person is black. Which of course isn’t true. They were booing because it was rude. Flashback:
[Kanye] West had said that he was “rude” for interrupting her acceptance speech for Best Female Video. “It was just very rude, period,” West said to Leno. “I’d like to apologize to her in person.”
The people who criticized Kanye weren’t being racist, were they?
Furthermore, go back to the video. When the protesters call for 4½ minutes of silence for Michael Brown (to symbolize the 4½ hours his body lay on a Ferguson street), the rally organizers raised their hands in support, as did many in the audience. Yes, there were catcalls and even some slurs (there are always are a few in every crowd). But to say that it exposed liberal racism? Based on what?
This isn’t to say that there isn’t white progressive racism. There is. Some of it is blatant but exists in small pockets (Yes, certain counties in West Virginia, I am looking at you). Some of it comes in more subtle forms, like those who insist that they are “colorblind:” and “don’t see race”. That, of course, is its own kind of racism. Of course, those people exist within all political camps (personally, I have seen more people on the right espouse themselves as “colorblind” than those on the left, but that might just be my experience). But as I state in the main body of my essay, the forces opposed to what BLM seeks to do are on the right. And if they visit rallies of THOSE candidates, they will see the racism. Sanders was an easy target because he was close to the protesters philosophically. Getting him to condemn racism in BLM language wasn’t like leading a horse to water and forcing him to drink — it was like approaching a horse already drinking from the water.
(2) “Who cares what the Seattle protesters did? They were successful, weren’t they?” Nope. I’ve already discussed how Sanders had already spoken about the black lives matter before the Seattle protest. But more than that, some people claim that by focusing on economic injustice, Sanders was avoiding the issue of racial injustice. That’s simply not true. Sanders understands, as apparently many BLM supporters do not, that you cannot achieve sweeping revolutionary racial changes unless you address economic injustice. Race and class are inextricably tied together.
Take two real world examples: A rich and famous former athlete kills two people in Brentwood, California. He gets due process of a trial (several trials actually), and retains the best lawyers. He’s found not guilty. Compare that to a a guy in Staten Island, New York, who allegedly tried to sell a cigarette on a sidewalk. He was summarily executed by police who compress his neck and chest until he could no longer breathe. No trial, no lawyers, no due process guaranteed by the Constitution. Since both guys were black, you can’t point your fingers at racism. It has to do with class.
Now, I certainly understand why protesters in the BLM movement would not like it if a presidential candidate (or someone like me) brings up the topic of economic injustice within a dialogue about racial injustice. It certainly appears like an attempt to skirt the race issue (or even sweep it under the table). Perhaps that might be considered a “gaffe” by failing to talk about race, instead of economy, to people upset exclusively about race (and who don’t see the economic connection). But I maintain… unless you are looking for bandaid approaches rather than long term permanent solutions, you need to understand how class and economics play a part in racial injustice. There are many good books on this issue.
(3) Black people don’t know what all white people think. Does this even need to be said? Any sentence that begins with “White people think that….” is just as prejudiced as a sentence that begins with “Black people think that….”. I know what a broad brush is, and it is a broad brush no matter who wields it. It doesn’t help a race movement to make broad-brush statements about someone else’s race.
This is entirely different from pointing out a structure or a political system which benefits one race over another. That is true and supportable.
So one can say that white people benefit from the current legal and political systems to the detriment of people of color. But don’t say that all white people want to preserve a system which endows them with white privilege. That’s simply untrue, and people of color don’t get to ascribe my motives any more than I can accurately ascribe theirs.
In a related vein, don’t claim that the white people at the Sanders event were “inconvenienced”. That’s spin. Some of them waited a long time to see/hear Sanders. Some of them wanted to know what he would say. But in the long run, who cares? Or “hurt feelings”. Again, that’s probably not true. But who cares? The criticisms against BLM are because BLM is shooting itself in the foot.
(4) Stop with the ridiculous false comparisons. Yes, being shot by police is worse than interrupting a political event. So is dying from breast cancer. Should the Koman people interrupt a BLM event because dying from breast cancer is worse than a rally?
(5) What to do, what to do. Hopefully, the Sanders incident was just a setback for BLM. Hopefully, they will rethink their broader strategy. But one should not disparage their efforts completely. Direct action against those who deny there is a problem (or who take the position that people of color are the problem) will always help. I don’t mean to turn anyone off to BLM. They should be a part of YOUR coalition,even if they reject coalition politics. In that vein, let me point to other organizations worthy of your time and consideration. Some have been around for a long time. For example, the Stolen Lives Project and the October 22 Coalition (to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation).
The latter has many local chapters (here’s the one for Greensboro NC) and his calling for a National Day of Protest on October 24. The event has a wide range of endorsers — from Eve Ensler to Cindy Sheehan (I mention them, because they are white), from the mother of Tamir Rice to the Cornel West. A coalition.