While conservatives were busy enforcing political correctness over the weekend, independent Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was enjoying another huge helping of the beef he’s had going with the #BlackLivesMatter movement these past few weeks. As Sanders prepared to take the stage in Seattle’s Westlake Park, Marissa Jenae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford demanded to be heard, and threatened to shut the event down if they were not given time to speak:
Event organizer Robby Stern first refused, then offered to let them speak after Sanders was finished, then relented and allowed Johnson to take the microphone as Sanders stood off to the side. What followed was a textbook come to life of cartoonish white liberal butthurt. The crowd jeered as Johnson and Jaqueline talked about the killing of Michael Brown one year ago, and when Johnson exclaimed that “I have to get up here in front of a bunch of screaming white racists to say my life fucking matters!”, you can actually hear a British lady scream “How dare you!”
It couldn’t have been any more stereotypical if they’d brought out actual couches for actual fainting.
When Sanders refused to engage Marissa Johnson over the flap at Netroots Nation, and Johnson refused to relinquish the microphone, the event was shut down, and Sanders went on to give another speech later in the day to 15,000 enthusiastic Berners. Sanders later released a statement expressing his “disappointment,” and his fans predictably continued to wonder where was black people’s gratitude for Sanders’ 1960s-era civil rights work.
This incident is a perfect distillation of the bargain that has animated much of Democratic politics over the past 50 years, a bargain that tells black people that Democratic politicians have to appeal broadly to as many white voters as possible in order to get into power, where they will, of course, have black people’s backs. Any resistance to the bargain is met with resentment over the aforementioned lack of gratitude, but the results of that bargain have been half-measures, at best, and destructive policies at worst. There’s a straight line to be drawn from Democratic “law and order” pandering to the policing and incarceration problems that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s why protesters aren’t waiting around for Bernie Sanders to speak, because they wisely understand that this is their moment of prime leverage, when no Democratic politician can afford to be seen as unresponsive to the carnage we’ve seen, and it is a moment that will pass if it is not seized. Sanders’ trajectory alone illustrates this, because he has gone from a defiant posture at Netroots to a series of attempts at appeasing the movement with safe policy band-aids. Black Lives Matter will not be met halfway, or even three-fifths of the way.
Sanders, for his part, appears to be trying, first with those policy baby-steps, and then by allowing the protesters to speak at his rally. He could have just walked off immediately. But he missed a golden opportunity to settle this feud once and for all by continuing to do what he was already doing: listening. His rally was already effectively ruined, he could have stayed and faced the music, engaged with the protesters, tried to answer their concerns, and maybe even adjusted his priorities somewhat.
Maybe that was the whole point, though, to let the protesters punch themselves out, while Sanders played the reasonable victim who just can’t satisfy these people. If he can’t get them on his side, then maybe Sanders can get more white liberals to see that of course, black lives matter, but so do jobs, and Bernie will of course take care of them when he gets elected president. These interruptions have fired up the Berners, and positioned Sanders to capitalize on his longstanding strategy to appeal to white voters.
I’m not cynical enough to believe that, but that’s a matter of perspective. I think Bernie Sanders feels a sense of genuine affront at being targeted this way, when he has always been in a higher percentile on black issues than most Democrats. I believe he sincerely wants to do right by black people, and genuinely sees his broader message as the best means to achieve that.
But perspective is the entire heart of the matter when it comes to Black Lives Matter. Some people look at the deaths of Eric Garner and Walter Scott and Sam DuBose and Sandra Bland as isolated incidents that illustrate the need for reforms and initiatives. Black people look at them and see terrorism.
To a white person, even a fairly liberal one, the string of police incidents can seem like a serious warning sign, but not statistically prevalent enough to warrant the sort of urgency that BLM displays. The point of terrorism, though, is not to terrorize the people you kill, it is to terrorize the people you don’t kill. When a cop guns down Walter Scott and plants a weapon on him with impunity, that’s not a message to Walter Scott, it’s a message to all black people that their lives are hanging by a thread whenever and wherever there are police around.
You know how one ISIS-inspired douchebag can make every white person in America feel threatened? Well, now imagine that there’s an ISIS chapter in every town, and the ISIS guys can pull you over, and you have to obey everything they say, and even then, they can still shoot you. That’s a little bit of what it’s like to be black, and that’s why saying the ISIS guys need better training and incentives to wear body cameras ain’t cutting it.
That’s the perspective that Bernie Sanders ought to look into if he really cares about black lives, let alone black votes.
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