When Activists Hijack Campaigns, Vital Causes Suffer

Today, intersectionality in activism is clearer than ever. Systems of oppression are deeply interconnected. For this reason, it is tempting to connect reparations for black slavery in America to the treatment of animals in factory farms, or to affix the plight of Syrian refugees to that of undocumented immigrants from Latin America and beyond. But, animal rights activists, pro-life activists, or any other political campaigners should not use Holocaust or slavery imagery to talk about factory farming or their respective cause; Palestinians shouldn't hijack immigrant rights rallies and Israelis shouldn't turn "#blacklivesmatter" into "#Israelilivesmatter" etc. While bringing attention to such issues is vital, it is wrong, however, for one movement to commandeer another constituency's narrative as their own, even where there may be fair comparisons.

This piggybacking disrespects other populations and their movements, thereby hurting the greater causes being advocated. Further, hijacking campaigns breaks down trust in the social change landscape and alienates crucial allies.

My concern about this topic doesn't come from a vacuum. There have been several recent, escalating "hijackings" of political events. In August 2015, Senator (and now Democratic Presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders went to a large meeting in Seattle to defend Social Security against congressional Republicans who are trying to curtail the program. No sooner had he begun to speak than a woman identifying herself as a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle seized the microphone, called for a prolonged period of silence for Michael Brown (whose killing by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer was the catalyst for the movement), and then began giving a speech. At this point, Sen. Sanders left the stage and the entire rally came to an abrupt end.


Senator Sanders, who was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been arrested for protesting racial segregation, and had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eventually came to an understanding with the group and other civil rights groups. However, conservative media seized on this incident immediately. Indeed, FOX News still has a video on its website titled "'Black Lives Matter' activists hijack Bernie Sanders rally." RealClear Politics, a right-leaning website, also prominently featured the event with the title: "'Black Lives Matter' Protesters Disrupt Bernie Sanders Event in Seattle, Sanders Gives Up the Mic to Them." While left-leaning media tended to favor Black Lives Matter, we may ask the question: Did this hijacking help the cause of Social Security, which in 2015 provided nearly $870 billion in benefits to more than 59 million Americans? Should we allow Social Security to be reduced, privatized, or even eliminated because some of its proponents do not agree with every just cause?

Conversely, libertarian anarchists (mostly aligned with reactionary militia movements), who oppose government ownership of land, experienced a hijacking of their own. On January 2, a group of protesters in Burns, Oregon, protested the imprisonment of two men who were convicted of setting fires on land leased from the federal government. At its conclusion, a group of armed men hijacked the occasion by seizing some unoccupied federal buildings at the nearby Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge, led by sons of a Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who had a long-running dispute with the federal government which resulted in a tense standoff in 2014. The Oregon protest organizers and the Burns Paiute tribe denounced the armed occupation, noting that the bird refuge established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 was being harmed; no local support ensued. Harney County sheriff David Ward emphatically stated that the armed occupiers were not helping the situation: It's time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully." Soon the original protest was forgotten, replaced by a media increasingly inclined to lampoon the incoherent rantings of the occupiers. Notably, one man who sat in a chair with a rifle on his lap, proclaiming that he thought there was a federal warrant for his arrest although he was not sure about that, donned a blue tarp that covered his entire body. Dubbed "Tarpman," he was ridiculed on social media and even in international media. It remains to be seen whether this emerges as a bad comedy or another act of domestic terrorism. Either way, no good will ensue.

History shows many instances in which one cause was advanced to the disadvantage of another. Consider these examples:

• The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted equality under the law specifically to men, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted the vote to black men. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that women should also be included, but other abolitionists and woman suffrage supporters such as Frederick Douglass and Julia Ward Howe thought that the compromise was necessary.
• President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a calculated decision to ignore racial civil rights during most of the New Deal. In exchange for this arrangements, southern Democrats helped pass critical New Deal legislation, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and the minimum wage.

While significant political injustice was tolerated in both cases, would we be better off today without these amendments or the essential New Deal legislation? I think not.

I have attended countless protests clearly planned to address one issue when other groups emerge to insert their own chants. At numerous progressive rallies, Palestinian flags and chants emerge, for example. We all have causes dear to our hearts that may not be getting the attention we want. Does this give us the right to destroy other worthy causes? Should we interrupt a Black Lives Matter gathering to demand that the movement endorse the benefits of a vegan diet? Should we chant at abortion politics at a pro-education rally? We must remember the hard truth that the opposition to any worthy reform only has to get a majority of legislators to agree to oppose a single issue. If the proponents have a lengthy list of mandatory positions, the reforms will most often fail. While we would like to see sweeping change, there are times when we have to bow to pragmatism. We cannot deny intersectionality, but we must nonetheless show respect to each individual population combating their own unique oppression. Those of us involved with activism, should express our disapproval of those who hijack platforms not designed for them even when we agree with their cause. This will help bring integrity and equanimity back to our collaboration.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.