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Black Lives Matter at Netroots Nation: Failing to Recognize the Power of Protest

Screen shot from Netroots Nation 2015’s live stream of the presidential forum

A number of people in attendance at the Netroots Nation presidential forum with Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders grew upset when black organizers took the stage and launched a protest. There were complaints about the organizers being disrespectful, obnoxious, and impolite.

It was supposedly not constructive. However, less than twenty-four hours later, O’Malley apologized for saying, “All Lives Matter,” and Sanders’ campaign sent messages in support of “Black Lives Matter.” This demonstrates that there are real advantages to protest, particularly at political gatherings like Netroots Nation.

However, a significant faction of Netroots Nation attendees, including some press in attendance, do not appear to recognize the value of this kind of protest in forcing change.

Tia Oso, a national coordinator for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in Phoenix, took the stage in the middle of O’Malley’s interview with undocumented activist Jose Antonio Vargas. She immediately contextualized the act of protest by acknowledging that Arizona was built on indigenous land and the border was drawn by white supremacists, who believed in “Manifest Destiny.”

She marked the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of an NYPD police officer, who put him in a chokehold and made him cry out, “I can’t breathe!”

The crowd of black organizers led a chant of, “Say Her Name!”, as Oso acknowledged Sandra Bland, a young black woman and anti-police brutality activist who was found dead in a jail cell in Texas. They shouted out names, like Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Kyam Livingston, Natasha McKenna, and Tarika Wilson, forcing the crowd to remember—and notice—their lives.

Oso stated, “We shouldn’t have to do this. We asked [Netroots Nation] to create space for black activists to connect. They said no so we did it ourselves.”

Following the acknowledgment of black women killed by police and prison guards, the organizers chanted “If I Die in Custody” and shared what they wanted the world to demand of authorities.

Patrise Cullors, who is with the Ella Baker Center and also a lead organizer of Black Lives Matter, declared, “Every single day folks are dying, not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. We are in a state of emergency.”

“And, if you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human,” Cullors added.

Cullors demanded that O’Malley and Sanders address the fight for black and brown lives. She pleaded with the candidates to speak out against police unions, who are “battering our names after their law enforcement” officers kill their people. She begged the candidates for action plans or concrete proposals for dealing with this crisis.

After the protest, the dominating news headline was that O’Malley had said something at a liberal conference that left-wing activists did not like. He said, “All Lives Matter,” and why should that be such a problem.

The disruption was cast as a sign of division in the Democratic Party. How are candidates going to deal with this? And, since Hillary Clinton declined to participate in the Netroots Nation presidential forum, does this show that she was smart to avoid this ruckus altogether?

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, a white woman who appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, suggested there was some kind of equivalency between the “semi-large” group supporting Donald Trump on the right and “folks who are not going to get the nomination being shouted down while they were denouncing billionaires, while they were calling for an increase, by the Black Lives Matter folks.” This was the “left side” of the Democratic Party having an “outburst of unreasonableness.”

Dave Weigel, a white establishment journalist who covered the Netroots Nation conference for the Post, showed off his contempt for dissent. “Surprised that Bernie Sanders’ call for ‘revolution’ was interrupted by more radical activists? May I introduce you to Russia 1917.” He mocked the activists, “What is to be done (about black lives)?”

Rather than attend to the significant issue of police violence and mass incarceration, those upset with activists, who raised the issue of black lives, are more concerned with “electability.” This is a concept, which infects all aspects of American politics. This concept inspires Americans across the political spectrum to think in terms of “viability” and what has to be done to attract “middle-of-the-road voters.”

It also is what leads one to suggest that a candidate cannot remain viable if they only address one issue—police violence. However, nobody involved in Black Lives Matter organizing has made such a demand and such a suggestion is ludicrous. It is like accusing an immigrant rights group of ignoring the fact that politicians must talk about other issues in addition to immigration. Of course, no pundit or progressive organizer is saying that to anyone.

More and more often, it seems progressive organizing does not allow space for people to engage in the kind of disruptive protest necessary to create openings for change. Organizers like Tia Oso have the courage to make demands of those campaigning for positions of power while the vast majority of the “netroots” has typically been content with echoing the demands that people in positions of power are comfortable with allowing the “netroots” to make.

For example, if Elizabeth Warren says “Black Lives Matter,” that’s cheered because there is nothing messy about it. No one was made uncomfortable by a group of people in the audience forcing everyone to dig deep into the meaning of that phrase so it is not merely applauded as a catchy slogan. Yes, let’s hold politicians’ feet to the fire, whatever that means.

In 2012, following the rise of the Occupy movement, everything that movement represented was somewhat echoed. Many in attendance were still careful to keep the movement at arm’s length. Several continued to insist that they needed a list of demands. Occupy activists needed to be more realistic, they argued.

Part of what makes the “netroots”—the amalgamation of liberal, progressive and left of center activists, organizers, and media makers—increasingly irrelevant is there unwillingness to go on the offensive. So much of progressive organizing is about embracing what little President Barack Obama can manage to offer. It is about deadening the blows the Republican Party is able to inflict upon poor, working class Americans. It is about superficially attending to the issues people of color in this country confront daily without actually advocating for proposals to dismantle structural racism.

It is not impolite to disrupt the president and demand justice for transgender immigrants at an LGBTQ gathering at the White House when there are people being brutally abused and jailed as they seek asylum from violence. It is not obnoxious to cry out for candidates to pay attention and recognize their pain when black and brown people are so often being killed by police.

When black organizers refuse to be silent in the presence of presidential candidates, who they have the power to impact, they expand the possibilities for change beyond Democratic Party politics. After all, it was not the “netroots” that forced President Barack Obama to describe mass incarceration by its name and confront it in a speech to the NAACP. It was not the “netroots” that forced the White House to come up with some kind of response (although weak) to police militarization and violence in communities. Both were a result of the Black Lives Matter movement refusing to let the White House dictate the politics of the possible.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."