By now you’ve seen the video or at least heard about it: two young black women jump up on stage to shut down an Aug. 8 Bernie Sanders campaign event in Seattle, Washington only to be loudly booed by the crowd. The protest action was carried out by Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, affiliates of the local Black Lives Matter chapter in Seattle, a city whose racial and political makeup mirrors Sanders’s constituency. In the ensuing days, social media has been filled with much head shaking directed at the activists themselves, and at Black Lives Matter. (“Don’t piss on your best friend,” read the title of one such hot take published in Gawker.)
But less than 24 hours after Sanders was interrupted, and shortly after the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s shooting, violence erupted at a protest in Ferguson—confirming the urgency of Seattle’s protest.
One year has passed since Mike Brown’s death—an event which galvanized an organized movement to end police violence—and black men are still seven times more likely than their white counterparts to die at the hands of police. While political campaigns move forward and elections draw nearer, black death continues unabated. Black people in America are, as Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrice Cullors told Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley during a separate disruption at Netroots Nation, “in a state of emergency.”
Black voters are, like any other voter, trying to determine who best represents their interests. Through direct action and protest, black organizers are forcing politicians to address black America’s issues by pushing back against liberal agendas that may want to save racial justice as a discussion for another day. No matter what the naysayers over at Gawker believe, this is a good thing.
Sanders has been disrupted twice by Black Lives Matter activists, who maintain that all of the candidates can expect to be pushed, albeit in different, tactical ways. Disruption as peaceful protest has a long history in US politics. Sanders often touts his credentials as a participant of the Civil Rights movement, meaning he must also understand the old saying often attributed to Frederick Douglass: power concedes nothing without demand.
Simply put, Sanders is a highly visible candidate for the presidency, and one who should be pushed. The tactics deployed by activists against Sanders are par for the course, and asking that they make demands quietly and in due time is contrary to both the urgency felt by black people in America and the Senator’s own history of activism.
Protest is rarely received warmly and disruption isn’t always a neat tactic, but it gets results. While Sanders did not have a meaningful racial justice plan as part of his platform prior to being targeted by Black Lives Matter, to his credit, his team has since unveiled one on their website. Sanders has a long way to go on race, but it’s clear that direct action gets the goods.
The backlash to the tactics deployed by activists, however, has been swift. What we’re witnessing is the fracturing of Sanders’s progressive base. It is an important test for a progressive candidate who presumably cares about the issues of so-called liberal America. State Senator Pramila Jayapal observed of the event: “Here was a rally of the most progressive folks in Seattle, and the veneer of acceptance and support for the Black Lives Matter movement broke very quickly.”
Here’s the thing: Democrats can no longer expect black voters to turn up at the ballot box without first meaningfully engaging with our concerns. The decentralized movement of Black Lives Matter will and should engage both the left and the right in ways it sees tactically fit to ensure that we are heard—and that may include disruption.
Those on the left who feel that Black Lives Matter activists are too angry or picking on the wrong guy should reconsider what their relationship to the Democratic coalition looks like. Standing for racial justice does not mean supporting movements up until their tactics make you uncomfortable or target someone you approve of. It does not mean taking the political support of black voters for granted without addressing their concerns with specificity. It has been pointed out that in fact, Sanders has a history of collapsing his analysis of race into a wider analysis of class—a tendency that made him a target for activists in the first place. Activists are waiting for rhetoric to translate into policy, policy that specifically targets police violence, mass incarceration, and the economic disenfranchisement of black people, issues that are not just pressing, but throttling black America.
If the political system doesn’t work, a new generation of activists will shut it down and rewrite the rules. At this point, the stakes are too high. Sanders has been reminded of that—it’s time everyone else was too.