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How Black Lives Matter Protests Are Affecting the Bernie Sanders Campaign

The following column represents the views of the author and the author alone.

Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a rally organized in Seattle to celebrate the anniversary of Social Security. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak, however, when it was his turn to deliver remarks, the activists took over the stage. Sanders left the rally and did not speak to attendees as planned.

In an evening rally in Seattle, the Sanders campaign seemed to go above and beyond to address issues, which are most important to Black Lives Matter. Sanders said it made “more sense to me to be investing in jobs and education for our kids than in jails and incarceration.”

State Representative Luis Moscoso said, “Racial inequality is as serious as economic inequality. No one should be dehumanized by their race.” State Senator Pramila Jayapal said Sanders knows “it is not enough just to say we care, it is not enough. What we have to do is call out personal, individual, and institutionalized racism at every opportunity.” Then, Sanders revealed that he had hired a black woman, Symone Sanders, as his press secretary, and she spoke for ten minutes about the importance of shutting down the private prison industry and fighting the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentences.

The same night Black Lives Matter Seattle put out a press release declaring they had held Sanders “publicly accountable for his lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his blatantly silencing response to the #SayHerName #IfIDieInPoliceCustody action that took place at [Netroots Nation] this year.”

“The problem with Sanders, and with white Seattle progressives in general, is that they are utterly and totally useless (when not outright harmful) in terms of the fight for Black lives,” Black Lives Matter Seattle asserted. “While we are drowning in their liberal rhetoric, we have yet to see them support Black grassroots movements or take on any measure of risk and responsibility for ending the tyranny of white supremacy in our country and in our city.”

Hours after this act of protest, a “Racial Justice” platform was posted to Sanders’ campaign website. It was framed around “four central types” of violence against black and brown Americans.

There are critical issues, which demand exploration: the intersection of electoral politics and movements, how a movement uses candidates’ campaign events to gain greater visibility for the movement, the negative effect of identity politics, and to what extent this helps a movement build solidarity and form coalitions.

America’s two-party system has a way of demobilizing citizens and strengthening the plutocrats or owners of this country.  As historian Howard Zinn argued, “Government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies, and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.” Democracy requires direct action by citizens.

Before specifically addressing what happened with Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter on August 8, some points must be made.

There is a real problem when organizing is viewed through one’s own identity instead of what it takes to collectively build solidarity against systems of racial oppression.

On white “ally-ship,” Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean wrote for Socialist Worker, “Our problem is with the one-sided focus on interpersonal dynamics that has a distorting effect on our understanding of racism and how to fight it. This makes it appear as though racism originates within white individuals. Without an acknowledgment of the historical and structural mechanisms that produce racism, political action and discussion can be reduced to confessing and talking about oneself.”

In discussions of organizing, especially around the movement for black lives, there is a tendency to want to shame people who disagree when they express views or take positions perceived as ignorant or uninformed. That ignorance is often ascribed a level of malevolence, even if there is no proof that there is bad intent behind certain statements. Such calling out of people took place online immediately after the Black Lives Matter action on Saturday.

For Tiger Beatdown, Flavia Dzodan described this “call out culture.”

[Call out culture] works more or less like this: I say something ignorant… Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness… The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”.

Robert Stephens at Orchestrated Pulse wrote, “Shaming individuals as a substitute for concerted political effort and substantive analysis cannot yield dynamic movements capable of remedying the material effects of oppression.”

In other words, there are various individuals plugged in and not so plugged in to movement politics, who attempted to make sense of what happened yesterday. Those who expressed views, which were not aligned with the most vocal leaders of the movement, faced an effort to shame and even were automatically blocked from participating in debate with movement organizers.

What is most important to organizing is that the experiences of those most oppressed, who bear the brunt of racial oppression, are centered. Similarly, what is crucial in journalism is that the experiences of survivors or victims of injustice be centered and that those experiences matter more than how those in the power structure feel uncomfortable as a result of direct action.

And, finally, I defended the activists, who took action during the Netroots Nation presidential candidate forum.

This post is written to provoke further conversation and debate about Black Lives Matter and solidarity organizing. Those who disagree with views expressed here should respond with more speech and challenge me instead of rejecting this attempt to illuminate an action, which happened this weekend.

***

Let’s return to the issue of Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter. What has been gained from disrupting his campaign events? How might this represent a larger problem within the movement to engage in solidarity organizing?

Undoubtedly, it turned up pressure on Sanders’ campaign to make racial justice a central part of his campaign. It spurred the hiring of Symone Sanders, who serves as the national youth chair of the Coalition of Juvenile Justice. His racial justice platform strongly focuses on the need to eradicate physical, economic, political, and legal violence against black Americans and includes specific agenda items he would be willing to pursue as president.

Sanders has a history in the civil rights movement, having organized against racism in the civil rights movement fifty years ago. But his campaign shrewdly recognizes that activists challenging him on the campaign trail do not care what he did decades ago. They want to know what he will do now.

“It’s not just about, I fought for civil rights and I protested and I sat at the lunch counters,” Symone Sanders told CNN. “That is important and that is great, but that was 50 years ago. And he has a lot more to stand on than what he did 50 years ago.”

There is now a lot of potential for local groups of Bernie Sanders supporters throughout the country to build solidarity with groups of Black Lives Matter activists throughout the country. But then, there is the issue of chapters like Black Lives Matter Seattle putting out a message that Bernie must “bow down” before their group.

From the press release Black Lives Matter Seattle put out:

…White progressive Seattle and Bernie Sanders cannot call themselves liberals while they participate in the racist system that claims Black lives. Bernie Sanders will not continue to call himself a man of the people, while ignoring the plight of Black people. Presidential candidates will not win Black votes without putting out an explicit criminal justice reform package. As was said at the Netroots action, presidential candidates should expect to be shut down and confronted every step along the way of this presidential campaign. Black people are in a state of emergency. Lines have been drawn in the sand. You are either fighting continuously and measurably to protect Black life in America, or you are a part of the white supremacist system that we will tear down in the liberation of our people…

Is Sanders ignoring the plight of black people? Has Sanders been content with participating in a system of white supremacy? And is it appropriate to villainize Sanders by treating his whiteness as something sinister?

What is missing in the critique of Sanders is a class analysis. Many of the issues Sanders talks about are economic issues, which impact working class people of color. These are issues of free public education (including college), employment for black youth, pay equity for women, discrimination against job applicants with criminal histories, and the affordability of childcare for working families.

For the most part, Black Lives Matter has focused most actions on police violence and responding to horrific acts of brutality by officers. What about broadening the movement to make it more sustainable?

Douglas Williams, a third-generation black organizer and writer for TheSouthLawn.org, argued on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, “It’s almost like this movement depends on  people continuing to die from police violence in order to have its issues put forward in the news.”

“My answer to that would be, well, let’s broaden out the coalition. Let’s broaden out the issues that we talk about,” Williams added. “Black lives matter also because black unemployment is nearly double what Latino unemployment is; to say nothing of being two or three times white unemployment. Black lives matter because black people are the most supportive of labor unions, but a lot of black folks live in states like Alabama and Mississippi, where labor rights are looked down upon.”

“We can make black lives matter by making labor organizing and labor unions a civil right. There are many ways to make black lives matter that can be broadened out from this narrow sort of issue of police violence. I think that would be a positive step for these series of protests to take if we’re trying to see this broaden out and last into the future,” Williams concluded.

 

As Williams put it, “Black lives already matter to black people. My guess is we need to talk to people to get them to matter to white people too.”

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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."