We'd been waiting for nearly two hours by the time he finally took the stage. We'd been approached by a few dozen petition-circulators, button-sellers, pamphlet-distributors and sign-holders. We'd heard a few songs by a group called the "Raging Grannies." And we'd listened to the usual array of warm-up speakers, local candidates and activists gathered for this event at Westlake Center in Seattle. Now, it was finally time for the man of the hour--or the two hours, actually. Until all of a sudden it wasn't.
Just as Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was beginning his speech, protestors representing "Black Lives Matter" took the stage, screamed at Sanders and commandeered the podium at what was supposed to be a celebration of the birthdays of Social Security and Medicare. I watched all this occur in real-time, but I was also capturing it on video. And I am glad I did, because not enough has been said of the insulting manner by which these individuals addressed everyone within earshot.
Demanding to speak, and to do so before Senator Sanders, Marissa Janae Johnson, a self-described co-founder of the Seattle group, began by telling us all "You guys are full of bullshit with your black lives matter!" Even though the crowd had cheered earlier speakers who'd mentioned the movement, Ms. Johnson seemed distraught that some people were chanting "Bernie!, Bernie!" after she'd taken over the stage.
Why was the crowd chanting "Bernie! Bernie!"? you might ask.Because they came to see Bernie Sanders speak about Social Security and Medicare.
This was when Ms. Johnson reprimanded the crowd even more--a crowd whose average age was easily more than twice that of her own--by announcing "You're never going to hear Bernie speak unless I get silence here now." Yes, she was scolding people of her parents' and grandparents' generations who had come to hear about how we might make lives better for the poor and elderly. And now she was also holding Senator Bernie Sanders for ransom.
Not surprisingly, the crowd of over a thousand did not appreciate these words or this tone. Would you like to be talked to in this way? Some booing ensued, followed by chants of "Let Bernie speak!"
Why were some in the crowd booing and chanting "Let Bernie speak"? you might ask. Because they came to see Bernie Sanders speak about Social Security and Medicare.
Eventually we must have been silent enough for her, because then Ms. Johnson officially introduced herself and said she had a "message" for Bernie (and for all of us). "I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives," she told us, "but you already did it for me."
One wonders: Was she expecting to get applause when she took over the stage? Was she looking for enthusiasm as she forced aside a man who saw the "I Have a Dream" speech in person in 1963 and who twice endorsed Jesse Jackson for president? Was she hoping for a "thank you" as she berated us?
Ms. Johnson continued by saying "Now that you've covered yourselves in your white supremacist liberalism," before listing a variety of problems with the city, and finally circling back to castigate the audience as "screaming white racists."
As Senator Sanders watched quietly from the back corner of the stage, Ms. Johnson then declared there would be a moment of silence for four and a half minutes, which she said would be representative of the four and a half hours that Michael Brown's body lay in the street.
And she also insisted this four and a half minute "moment" would not begin until everyone was silent.
For the first ten seconds people looked around, unsure of what to do. Before this, she had just stolen the spotlight; but now she was demanding compliance from over a thousand people who still hoped Sanders would be able to speak at his own event.
Eventually we were silent--or silent enough, I guess. For four and a half minutes.
Having accomplished this, you might think she would cede the stage to the rightful speaker. You might think that, but you'd be wrong.
At this point, Ms. Johnson looked over to Senator Sanders and beckoned him to come and stand next to her. She said she wanted to hold him "accountable" for his failures. She wanted him to stand next to her so she could chastise him--just as she had done to everyone else that happened to have enough interest in democracy to stop by on a sunny Seattle afternoon.
"Accountable" for what, you might think. Or at least you should. Accountable for being the most liberal presidential candidate in this race? Accountable for being the candidate most likely to actually work on behalf of these concerns, should he be elected president? Accountable for showing impressive restraint as she moved him out of the way at his own event, before indiscriminately disparaging his supporters?
At this point, Bernie left the stage. And when he did, I think a lot left with him.
Did Ms. Johnson get attention with this disruption? Yes, she did. She got her name in the papers and got the chance to accuse Bernie's supporters of "white supremacist liberalism," as head-scratching as that claim might be.
But did she help the cause? I doubt it.
If anything, she set it back. The people who were at this rally were already on board with her basic concerns--albeit not her methods. What was accomplished with the character assassination? Why attack the candidate--and the people--most inclined to listen to your concerns and support your cause?
More to the point, why allow those not at the rally to read about an event where a man who will fight for racial justice and his supporters were slandered by self-defeating antics that will do more harm than good in the long run? Why give the general public such easy cause to dismiss the movement based on the unfortunate means adopted by a few individuals?
Black lives matter. Of course they do. But there is a way to get that across without having the messenger(s) cramp the message. That was the real shame on Saturday.