Really? Bernie Again? Do these activists not have access to the public schedules of the 17 or so Republican candidates who struggle to declare all lives matter (but only before you’re born)? Or to the public schedule of Hillary Clinton — the standard bearer of the neoliberal agenda that has helped destroy the middle-class and push people deeper into poverty; and the wife of a president whose welfare policies have wreaked havoc on black communities? Is Sanders simply the ‘easy’ target, because he’s the only person Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists have access to?
I asked these questions after learning about the latest disruption of the Sanders campaign by ostensible BLM activists. And while, I admit, I’m not privy to information on how BLM organizes its public actions, I think my questions are reasonable and valid, nonetheless.
As I watched the video of activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford — who claimed to be part of the BLM movement – bogarting that August 8 Seattle Social Security rally, I also wondered what the two women hoped to accomplish.
Less than a week after the incident, the Sanders campaign released a comprehensive set of policy proposals designed to “transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color.”
I believe that the Seattle disruption, in addition to a BLM disruption of Sanders’ Netroots Conference in Arizona several weeks ago, may have forced the candidate to engage with race more transparently and more deliberately. This point is supported by Sanders’ swift release of his sweeping racial justice platform and reaffirms my belief that radical action expedites the political and legal “all deliberate speed” (meaning: Let’s do it, but not so fast) — and quickens the comfortably slow pace of systems resistant to change.
But the conflict that the Seattle disruption has caused among both BLM insiders and the movement’s peripheral supporters, is at least as troubling as Sanders’ newfound racial awareness is hopeful. Many BLM allies were turned off by Johnson’s and Willaford’s tactics and have begun questioning the movement itself.
The fallout from the Seattle incident begs several questions: What does it even mean to be part of the BLM movement? Does it mean the liberal use of a hashtag (virtual dissent)? Does it mean marching, protesting, taking over rallies (actual dissent)? Does it mean building a social justice organization and sustaining a nationwide movement? Or can it be all of these things?
This is a legitimate form of inquiry, but fundamental to this line of questioning is a self-evident set of principles that must never be questioned — a single black life matters just as much as any other life; black people have the same Constitutional rights as other people; and, more importantly, we have natural rights — not just those afforded us by the state, but by virtue of our existence as human beings.
If you believe in these principles, then the actions of those two women in Seattle — even if you think they were misguided, ill-conceived and ill-executed — should not make you retract your support for the notion that black lives matter. Moreover, their actions should not prompt you to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to legitimate critiques of progressive politics (and progressive politicians such as Sanders); and to the myriad ways in which race and class intersect.
That said, BLM, as an organized movement, has to be critically self-reflective and it must reevaluate some of its strategies. As with other organized social justice movements, BLM will need to learn how to manage the inevitable rifts and chasms that will occur within its decentralized structure. Most importantly, it will have to mature, such that differences that members may have about tactics and strategies don’t lead to policies and practices that exclude, silence and question the legitimacy of other forms of activism.
I believe that the BLM movement is at an important crossroads. The movement can either mimic the undemocratic, bullying and authoritarian nature of other systems that have, for so long in this country, silenced the voices of marginalized people; or they can grow into a real force for transformative change. Indeed, the only threat to BLM becoming that catalytic force for change would be an unwillingness to evolve.
The energy we spend lashing out against critics or nursing hurt feelings should be redirected toward doubling down on the work each of us does in our own spheres of influence. We must focus both on amplifying the principles on which BLM is built and on perfecting the policies and practices that will be necessary if we are to institutionalize what has, for many, been not much more than a slogan and a hashtag.