Black lives trump "politeness": The disruption of a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle

There has been a great deal of heated debate on social media and elsewhere about Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists shutting down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle on August 8. As attendees at this rally celebrating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we admire the courage of the two young Black women who took over the stage to demand that Sanders, and other candidates for U.S. president, address the epidemic of violence and oppression faced by black communities across the nation.

The real question is why Bernie Sanders did not try to engage with them. Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford boldly grabbed the microphone to point out that "progressive Seattle" is riddled with problems of police abuse, incarceration of youth of color, gentrification, disproportionate suspension of Black schoolchildren, and other racial justice issues. And they demanded Sanders address racism. This is not the first time these issues have been raised to Sanders. At a Netroots Nation conference in July, Black women called on him to put forward a racial justice agenda to dismantle structural racism in the U.S.

At the Seattle event Sanders made no attempt to speak with the BLM activists, have a dialogue, or address the crowd on this burning issue of our times. If he'd desired, surely one of the rally organizers could have walked a mic over to him. Instead, he stood aside and shook his head, and then walked off the stage without speaking.

Sanders' reputation as a progressive should in no way give him a pass on racial justice issues. He voted for Bill Clinton's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which props up the racist prison-industrial complex. He voted to extradite Assata Shakur, an African American freedom fighter who is living in exile in Cuba. And his refusal to denounce Israel's war against Palestinians gives tacit consent to some of the most racist repression on the planet. (See the Freedom Socialist Party statement, distributed at the Sanders rally, that critiques his run to be Democratic presidential nominee:

Some say that the BLM protestors went too far by interrupting the event. That it was rude. But after hundreds of years of continuous racist violence in the "land of the free", it is ridiculous to expect anti-racist protestors to follow all Seattle protocols on politeness. Especially when they see the violence only escalating. The murder of Black men continues unabated and, in July alone, five Black women died in police custody.

Besides, politeness was in short supply when many in the largely white audience reacted to the BLM action with intense hostility. Some shouted racist and sexist invectives like "tase them," "get these Black bitches off the stage," and "call CPS" (Child Protective Services). It was chilling.

Members and supporters of Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party, and some others in the crowd, began loudly chanting to support the Black Lives Matter protesters. We debated those around us. When someone said they could not understand why the BLM activists were taking over, one of our contingent shot back, "Have you had a family member arrested or killed by the police?" The answer was no, and a discussion began on why the fight for racial equality can't wait.

We could feel the majority of the rally crowd grow tense when the BLM protestors leveled charges of white supremacist liberalism. We see a difference between liberals and those with an explicitly racist ideology. But racism is racism. At times some of the viciously hostile responses sounded like a KKK rally. That's not so surprising in a country built on the foundations of genocide and slavery, where racism, which is essential to keeping the profit system alive, permeates everyday life. But it was downright hypocritical at a social justice event.

It is imperative that we tackle head-on the racism and sexism that reared its head in Seattle's progressive movement. And that we focus on the critical issues the BLM activists raised and Sanders skirted.

For inspiration, let us remember that the history of the civil rights movement includes courageous multi-racial organizers who were not polite. Folks of all colors risked their lives in the effort. We know that white folks committed to social change can channel their inner John Brown, a white man who collaborated with Harriet Tubman to free slaves and gave his life trying to spark an armed slave rebellion.
The "ill-mannered" disruption of the rally sparked a new national discussion about racism. It's time for everyone to link arms with the BLM movement in the fight for radical change now.

Steve Hoffman, Seattle Freedom Socialist Party
Anne Slater, Seattle Radical Women

Radical Women * 206-722-6057

Freedom Socialist Party * 206-722-2453