Bernie Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter, and The Difference Between Activism and Flaming

Ken AshfordElection 2016, Race, Racial HomicidesLeave a Comment

A Tough Weekend For Black Lives Matter, says the headline of an article in today’s Atlantic.  And why?  Two things: (1) an officer-involved shooting of a black youth by cops in Ferguson, Missouri at the end of a day of otherwise peaceful protests, and (2) a demonstration at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle on Saturday.

The first one was a setback because the youth was reportedly shooting at police cars.  I have little to say about this because it happened late last night, and I’m sure we don’t know all of the facts (also, the first facts that come out of these things are often wrong).  However, if it is true that some black kid was shooting at police cars and they had legal justification to shoot back — yeah, that’s a setback form BLM.  Not, of course, because they condoned or incited the shooting, but it mars the day and the movement as a whole, and gives credence to the BLM haters who say (often in racist tones) that the blacks are at fault and there is no racism problem with law enforcement in that town.  (The DOJ believes differently, but never mind that, right?)

The second matter is, to me, actually troubling.  I’ll let CNN report what happened:

Seconds after Sanders took the stage, a dozen protesters from the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter jumped barricades around the stage and grabbed the microphone from the senator. Holding a banner that said “Smash Racism,” two of the protesters—Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, the co-founders of the chapter—began to address the crowd.

“My name is Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle,” she said to sustained boos from an audience that had waited an hour and a half to hear Sanders. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me, thank you.

“You are never going to hear Bernie speak if I don’t hear silence now,” said Johnson, adding later, “Now that you’ve covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism, I will formally welcome Bernie Sanders to Seattle.”

To sustained boos from the audience that assembled to see Sanders, Johnson demanded that the senator take action on saving black lives and called on him to release his plans to reform policing. “Bernie Sanders, would you please come over here,” she said. Johnson and Willaford demanded—and eventually won—a four-and-a-half-minute-long moment of silence in honor of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago on Sunday. Sanders stood just feet away off stage, chatting with his wife, Jane, and the three aides that came to Seattle with him. Sanders’ aides said the senator had no plans of leaving during the protests, but once Johnson did not appear willing to give up the mic after the moment of silence, organizers effectively shut down the event.

Sanders released a statement in response to the interruption by Johnson and Willaford. “I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare,” it read. “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.” (The emphasis is mine).

The Atlantic article goes on to opine, “this sort of activism strikes me as a self-inflicted blow to Black Lives Matter.”  Me too.  They did it in part by painting all of Bernie’s audience as “covering themselves in white supremacist liberalism.”

We have to be careful when talking about BLM as if it is moving or acting as a unified animal.  Nobody is a “card-carrying” BLM member, since there is no card or set of credentials.  It is a lot like the Tea Party, which started out as one thing (a grassroots movement against big government and too much taxes [TEA stood for “Taxed Enough Already”]) to becoming a broad movement by the far right in all matters (especially social).

Therefore, since BLM is merely a movement and not a centralized organization, anybody can lay claim to being a BLM “member”.  In Seattle, where Sanders tried to speak, there was a BLM chapter with a Facebook page.  But late last week, another BLM Seattle Facebook page appeared, and the women responsible for that “protest” — Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford — were the ones who created that page.

Let’s look at what happened at Bernie Sanders rose to speak:

Something similar happened in July at the Netroots convention, although by all accounts, not nearly as extreme.  The yelling was from the audience, and it was mostly directed at Martin O’Malley.  When Bernie Sanders appeared, the moderator asked him for his views about racial injustice, and he launched into an answer about economic injustice which did not satisfy the audience, and he was shouted down.  Clearly, these protesters did not understand Sander’s brand of coalition-building — that class and race are inextricably linked — and that to effect real change in race, you need to address issues of class.  I wouldn’t say they disagreed with Sanders, because that would imply that they were able to comprehend his position while they were shouting at him.  The protesters at Netroots wanted him to say something specific (as if specking slogans is the solution), and he didn’t, so they got pissed.

What happened at the Netroots convention also strikes me as divisive.  This isn’t a commentary on the sentiment and anger of the black protesters, and if this was a spontaneous reaction to something, I would understand.  But this, by all accounts, was a planned disruption.  And there’s a problem with that.  I’ll let Th Young Turks carry the load on this one:

I don’t assume that the Seattle disruption was a natural extension of the Netroots protests.  For one thing, the Seattle disruption involved only two women, and whether they were part of, or even knew of, the Netroots protest is unknown.  More importantly, as I said above, there is no grand Black Lives Matter plan.  I stress, anyone can consider themselves a supporter and member of Black Lives Matter and assert whatever they want in BLM’s name.  And there’s no mechanism to stop them or contradict them.

Which brings us back to Marissa Johnson and Mara Williford.  Who are they?  We know they claimed to be part of the Black Live Matter Seattle Organization, having created a Facebook page late last week (despite the fact that a BLM Seattle Facebook page already existed).  What else?

Well, it’s not hard for anyone to do the minimal Internet research. The first stop is their Facebook page.  On its face, we know something is off by their claim that “Black Lives Matter Seattle is a registered chapter of the BLM Organization.”  Nope.  No such thing as a “registered chapter”.

But we do know that Marissa Johnson is a member of a group known as Outside Agitators 206.  Here, for example, is a flyer (PDF) for a symposium which clearly states her name and affiliated organization.

Who are Outside Agitators, and what do they stand for?  Fortunately, that requires no more than a short visit to the Outside Agitator 206 website, and their helpful, “Who Are We” page:

We are the Outside Agitators 206.

First off, we have four points of unity:

  1. We center Black voices to celebrate and affirm Blackness. We believe that any movement to end anti-Black racism must be led by Black people.
  2. We believe that everyone has a right to resist their oppressors and what resistance looks like varies for different individuals and different circumstances.
  3. We don’t directly speak to corporate media, nor do we need them. We are our own voice.
  4. Fuck the police: As an institution fundamentally rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness we reject the police presence in our communities, absolutely. It is our responsibility to hold each other accountable and keep each other safe.

We are abolitionists in the year 2015. We want an end to police terror, we want an end to slavery that is the prison system, and we want the people who profit from this held accountable.

Nothing terribly wrong with that (although the “we are our own voice” comment is amusing in light of their hijacking of Sanders’ microphone).

But traveling to their front page, you find something a little more ominous.  A recent post with this title: Democrats Hope to Bury Black Lives Matter Under Election Blitz.  Oh, really?  The post reads, in its entirety:

The Democrats hope the Black Lives Matter movement, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, will disappear amid the hype of the coming election season.

“The Democrats have mounted a systematic co-option/repression response that will intensify as the election season – and Black cities – heat up.”The Democrats understand that, for the movement to succeed, their party’s power over Black America must be broken.

Go here to read more.

And I invite you to click through to the “read more”.  This is a group that clearly wants to place a wedge between black people and the Democratic party.  The view that “Democrats are keeping the blacks down and in a constant sate of need” so that blacks will continue to vote for Democrats…. that’s something that comes straight out of the Limbaugh playbook.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter.  Was what happened at the Seattle Sanders event… good?

Most people I know who are supporters of the BLM movement (and what is the difference between a supporter and a “member” in this situation?  None) agree that this was divisive.  And I agree.  Was it intentional or just stupid?  It hardly matters.  But it is a setback for BLM.

Every movement or coalition has its more extreme members, and BLM is no exception. While no one should disparage the anger and frustration that drives BLM activists, I think it both reasonable and important to acknowledge and discuss the actions taken in name of the larger movement and the motives behind those actions.  And their actions were counterproductive.

Any social change is brought about through coalition.  It really does take a village.  Bernie Sanders, who was arrested for segregation protests, who marched with MLK, who spoke at the Million Man March, and who has an unimpeachable civil rights records as a public servant, does not need to defend his stance on racial matters.  And if people don’t know his stance, that is due to their ignorance.  Bernie Sanders was picked on because he is the path of least resistance — the one candidate most open to listening and fixing the very problems that the BLM movement would like to rectify.  So what does he get?  He and his supporters get branded as “racists” and “white supremacists”.  Not exactly the kind of coalition-building that is needed.  Sanders, of course, rose above it, but it put a bad taste of many within the BLM movement.  It wasn’t necessary.  It absolutely wasn’t.

If it was intentional, I consider it amateur activism.  Civil disobedience is a perfectly reasonably tactic, but you don’t do it to allies.  But these particular women apparently don’t consider Sanders and his supporters allies… and why?  Because they are (to quote the woman) “covered in white supremacist liberalism”.

And if you need to draw attention to something, civil disobedience is important.  This was the goal of Occupy Wall Street.  To get people thinking about income inequality.  And they did.  But Occupy Wall Street had no Act Two, and that’s why they were never effective in creating actual change.  BlackLivesMatter does not have the same PR problem as Occupy.  I doubt anyone in the audience of the Sanders rally or, you know, in the country, is unaware of the race problem facing black people when it comes to the criminal justice system.  Johnson and Williard opened the eyes of virtually nobody.

And people (including myself) are not talking about Sanders position on racial injustice, but about Johnson and Williard.  Which was, I suspect, their point.  That isn’t activism, and it sure isn’t likely to bring about change.  It’s called flaming for the sake of flaming.

I’ve written with glee about the disarray of the right, and how the Tea Party has pulled it apart such that you’ve got huge infighting.  Who benefits?  Progressives.  This is political theory 101. The right wing does not support civil rights — in fact, they are quick to deny there is a problem (look how quickly even Jeb Bush is willing to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement).  Civil rights and racial justice is a central plank of the progressive movement, and has been for almost fifty years.  Of course, there is work to be done.  In fact, the Reagan revolution and the acceptance of conservatism has set the cause backward.  Vigilance is required.  But flaming liberals?  Calling liberals and/ or ALL white people “white supremacists”?  That’s gloriously inane.  And untrue.  And even racist.

James Foreman (who I’m sure Marissa Johnson has never heard of) once said, if you can’t sit at the table [of democracy], then “kick the fucking legs off”.  That’s a prescription for change, but ultimately, it wasn’t the Black Panthers or the Black Separatists that brought real change and civil rights to minorities. Foreman recognized that in later life.  It was a coalition of people, men and women, of all religions and races, brought together by the words of their spiritual, if not moral, leader, Martin Luther King.  He may be passe to the black youth of today, but his tactics (garnered from older ones) win the day.  And what’s more important — change, or pissing people off?

Social activist “Mother” Mary Jones was once quoted as saying “The business of social activism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  These women missed their target (which is why conservatives are having a field day over this).  And if there IS a central overseeing BLM management headquarters, they ought to disavow it.  (Unfortunately, there isn’t)

The Seattle protesters leaped to the stage as Sanders started talking, got in his face, and yelled at him. They commandeered the mic and spoke for almost ten minutes. The audience, who had waited in the hours in the hot sun, booed the protesters. What did they THINK would happen? It has nothing to do with the audience’s attitude toward the race issue. Or the skin color of the protesters. It’s just uncivil, and that’s the reaction you get.

UPDATE… I thought I would share what Ring of Fire writes:

Three or more members of Black Lives Matter (BLM) stormed the podium at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, forcing Bernie from the stage without him being able to address the crowd of thousands who came to hear his message of raising the plight of those struggling in America. No matter how calm and peaceful the crowd was, and no matter what organizers promised in regard to allowing them to speak, these individuals simply wanted to commandeer the stage to prevent Bernie’s message from being heard. This is not the first time they did it? Why? What is it about Bernie Sanders that threatens a few leaders within BLM more than the other Democratic and Republican candidates?

A few, what we term false leaders with BLM, prefer the status quo, unless the BLM message primarily focuses on the plight of black women, and which change comes about in a more militant style than peaceful. This obviously is not what the vast majority of those supporting BLM believe, but it is what a few  in leadership positions believe; and it’s this small, vocal voice that unfortunately can damage an entire organization. Every organization faces this, and it’s very difficult to address within an organization; but it does require the silent majority within the organization to rise up and speak louder than the few, vocal, minority.

Bernie’s message is to raise the plight of all minorities and those struggling, at the expense of the upper 1%. He is not solely focused on one group. He wants a society where people truly have opportunity; and where race, religion, sexual orientation, and other differences don’t matter. It’s this all encompassing message of change that these few individuals believe will dilute their voice and their contributions to the movement.


As this one founder of BLM makes clear, the movement (from her perspective) is mostly about a single group, black women. Anyone such as Bernie Sanders who is trying to enlarge the issue to include all struggling Americans, she sees as diluting her message. She believes the sole focus should come from those within the black community who understand the struggle, and that the movement should be more in a militant style rather than that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We in no way are saying that the Black Lives Matter movement is a bad organization, just the opposite. They are raising the issue on a national basis about the injustices occurring against blacks all over America, especially in the criminal justice system. This is crucial if change is ever going to occur. However, certain, what we term “false leaders”, are steering the organization in the wrong direction, in our opinion, if they truly want change to occur. If we at Ring of Fire are wrong, then we ask them to stand up and take a very strong stance against what is occuring at these rallies, and to state what their true goals are, and how we can assist them to help struggling black Americans.

As a note to the specific individuals who have been interrupting Bernie’s rallies and not allowing him to speak: Bernie Sanders was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and even joined the March on Washington, which featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, in 1963. He is one of only two sitting senators who can say that. Also, he is one of the only elected white officeholders who endorsed Jesse Jackson for President.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.


(1)  Well, well, well.  Doesn’t look like Marissa has the backing of other Black Lives Matter people:

This petition, created by #BlackLivesMatter activists, demands that Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford publicly apologize to Bernie Sanders.

Johnson and Willaford are the women who interrupted Bernie Sanders’ speech during a social security rally in Seattle and accused the audience of “white supremacist liberalism.”

#BlackLivesMatter activists believe that this type of behavior is inappropriate and counterproductive, and we will not support it.

(2)  Marissa Johnson speaks

In a self-congratulatory podcast interview, Johnson talks about herself and the protest.  I agree with much about what she says, but I am troubled by other things she says.  Among some revelations, she picked Bernie Sanders because he has no security, so she’s not going to try to get other Democratic candidates accountable (and the GOP is not a target). She’s an evangelical Christian. She rejects change through elections, which (to me) places her outside any form of constructive change (and as demonstrated, can be actually be destructive).  And my favorite, she claims she can’t be racist because her mother is white.  Her heart is in the right place, her sincerity is unquestionably, but she is very very very young and very very naive.

For her to say that the “system” has NEVER helped African-Americans is simply incorrect and naive at best, stupid at worst.  And it begs the question: if you believe change can only come from outside the political system, then why do you CARE what Sanders position is?

And although it wasn’t Johnson, please note at the 7:00 mark how one of the interviewers compares the Sanders rally to a KKK rally.  This is the mentality that we are dealing with.  (Fortunately the other interviewer steps in and walks that back).

I’m glad I mentioned James Foreman above, because Marissa Johnson could learn from him.  He was a great man and a great civil rights leader, but his thinking went through an evolution.  Johnson needs to take that same journey.

But viewers can come to their own conclusions.

I still maintain that BLM should not sabotage every event it can, nor should it sabotage political events of its allies.  And if it chooses to, the people who object to that tactic (of all colors, BTW) should not be labelled racists.