Transformative political movements need to be able to adapt and respond to social crises. They need to see criticism as valid and important. We now live in the post-Seattle Sanders campaign. What has happened in the last three-plus days with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows the candidate and his staff are willing to evolve and transform. His base of largely white progressives have not taken interruption and criticism well at all, and has fallen back on arguments that I frankly find insulting.
The campaign has hired Symone Sanders, a black woman with a background in justice system activism, as a national press secretary. Also brand-new is a racial justice campaign platform that I think is pretty comprehensive. It divides violence against people of color into four distinct categories (a structure that as a sociologist I appreciate for its clarity), and deals with police reform, mandatory minimums, voter disenfranchisement, the War on Drugs, all tied into the established (but previously whitewashed) economic policies.
Additionally in tonight’s massive rally in Los Angeles he allowed Black Lives Matter activists to open up the program. Most (perhaps all) other candidates would likely have just beefed up security.
I think besides him lagging far behind Hillary Clinton in campaign staff diversity, Sen. Sanders and the core, experienced people who are running his campaign get it. The activists who interrupted the Seattle event and those like them know that. They target Sanders because he was the most likely candidate of either party to respond to their concerns. They were right, and a bunch of activists have said that the Democratic candidates have been in touch about incorporating racial justice into what they do.
One would hope that this process will be a learning experience. An example of how parts of the social justice movement can combine to become stronger. The wider base of Sanders supporters has made me discouraged though. Without the people who will ultimately decide his fate in the primaries accepting Black Lives Matter as an integral part of the process, this will just be a wise decision from the top with no larger social currency.
My friend Chad posted this picture up. He’s a Socialist Alternative member who moved from San Diego to Seattle recently to work with a local SEIU chapter. He took this during the period of silence in remembrance of Mike Brown, after the planned event was interrupted.
Adding “There was a mix of fists in solidarity and middle fingers raised in defiance.” So the the two fingers here were not isolated but widespread.
My friend Max, who has deep connections in the Democratic Party machine, added in the aftermath “many consultants and strategists I know are saying that isn’t Bernie’s poll numbers or lack of $$$ that might doom him, it could very well be his strongest supporters.”
The level of discourse in the last few days has varied wildly, but I’d like to isolate some things being said that are both insulting and short-sighted.
- There was a lot of talk of the Seattle interruption being part of a conspiracy. Who was behind it varied- I saw people claiming Hillary Clinton’s campaign was behind it. Others said the GOP. One person specifically said it looked like something Karl Rove would do. This talk, almost all from white people, is denying black autonomy. It is saying that these two black women are paid agents of white people. There are few ways to be more demeaning and offensive.
- There was a lot of talk about the tactics being used are counterproductive. I wrote this just after the Seattle event.
- There was talk that Bernie is the “best ally” of black people and it’s self-defeating to target him. It ignores that being the best of a poor lot on racial justice is not an excuse for leaving him along.
- There was talk of why Black Lives Matter activists don’t interrupt Clinton events, or GOP candidates. There is plenty of pressure on Clinton, but she also hasn’t been drawing the massive crowds that give exposure like Sanders does. Targeting the GOP is useless because they don’t care and never will. Activists are intelligent people and can make estimates of how much can be gained with a finite amount of time and resources.
- There was gratuitous mention of Sanders’ background in civil rights- SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. That is all well and good, but that was forty-seven years ago. Mike Brown was killed a year and two days ago. This is a new civil rights struggle that requires a re-commitment to justice and equality.
- There was a discussion of how inconvenient the interruption was, and how people came to see a program that involved Sanders speaking. These white progressives are either ignorant of history or fine with being hypocritical. Protest is inconvenient, that’s what separates it from regular day-to-day activity. What happened at Stonewall was a violent riot against the New York police. Civil rights activists shut down a lot of Birmingham for over a month in 1963. Black resource centers and academic curriculum came from events like the Cornell takeover, where radicals fought off a fraternity attempting to violently drive them out of a occupied hall, compelling the occupiers to bring in firearms to defend themselves. I helped shut down the Port of Oakland in late 2011. That cost a lot of people millions of dollars. Do I think that makes my action unjust? Not even a little bit.
- Finally, there was just plain mean, borderline racist shit. It’s weird to see white progressives attack conservatives for calling black activists “thugs”, but then use similar language whenever black women do the same kinds of actions.
Sanders will not win the primaries by just getting the non-white vote. But he will lose them because people of color don’t show up in numbers to back him. Clinton has many advantages, including the overwhelming approval of her husband among Black Americans.
Since Peyton Stever wants modern data that says the same thing, I’ll link to this story that shows Hillary with a new +68 rating. The Clinton brand has always tested well, during and after the Clintons’ stay in the White House. Sanders has to build name awareness with a supporter base that’s a ready source of ammunition when the primaries actually close in. How will social media screenshots of racist talk from people with Sanders logo profile pictures play in black-heavy media outlets? Anyone remember how racist Hillary supporters were a massive headache in 2008?
Just because Sanders promotes policies that would economically help people of color doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for him. He needs to be responsive and show that he genuinely cares. His campaign is on aggregate doing a good job as of late. The large amount of volunteers scattered around the country, on the other hand, need to open their minds.
As Robespierre once said during the French Revolution- “Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?” A revolution is a very particular process. This is a very far step from status quo Democratic Party politics. Going to events, reading media accounts, talking with supporters, it is not surprising that many are unable to see this as an opportunity to run something distinct from the Hillary campaign, or the Obama campaign in 2008. Sanders wants a grassroots movement to change the country. What I see is a grassroots movement to get Sanders elected, with very little outside of that narrow goal.
Thus when there was a negative reaction to how the Seattle event went down, I was not surprised. A political revolution involves liberation struggle. The business-as-usual tack was to insult these women, tell them they were self-defeating, and place their actions in the confines of two-party partisanship. I saw a lot of that. I just passed my six year anniversary of deregistering as a Democrat. This fiasco is a big part of why I did so, even before I became a radical in the proper sense of the term.