At a rally in Seattle on Aug. 8, protestors disrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' scheduled speech and shifted focus to police brutality against people of color in America. It worked. The event abruptly ended, and Sanders never got to speak.
Last month, a similar incident occurred when both Sanders and presidential candidate Martin O'Malley were blocked from speaking by a #BlackLivesMatter activist at Netroots Nation.
There's been debate about whether what these protesters did was effective for their cause or just counterintuitive. There has also been dismissal of the protesters' actions as downright mean and, as a Gawker piece on Monday described the incident, "remarkably dumb."
The title of the Gawker article was, after all, "Don't Piss On Your Best Friend." Your "best friend" being Bernie Sanders. Progressive, ultra-liberal Bernie Sanders, who marched with Martin Luther King, who now emphatically agrees that yes, black lives do matter.
Respectability politics definitely play a role here. The argument goes: If these loud, destructive, rude protesters would only mellow out, they'd realize that you catch more flies with honey. Don't upset or alienate your white allies. Don't piss on your best friend. Don't put your best friend in a compromising position. He can't help you until he gets on the inside. So be nice, play fair, and wait your turn. You're making black people look bad.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement involves an amorphous group, and the actions of a few don't necessarily reflect on the whole. But there's a danger in policing the way black people choose to protest, in calling their actions dumb or counterintuitive simply because they've disrupted a supposed "good guy."
There's this strange binary that falsely pits "peaceful" against "radical." It casts Martin Luther King Jr. as the hero and Malcolm X as the villain -- and all the while ignores the institutional and social racism that compelled both men to do what they did. It ignores the fact that during his day, MLK was viewed as a deviant and a troublemaker. It invokes his name whenever protests, like the ones in Ferguson, turn less than peaceful -- "Martin Luther King is turning his grave." What it misses is that not even an Ivy League education, a Nobel prize, and a sharp suit could save MLK from a bullet.
This is all to say that, at such a critical point in American history, whether or not you totally agree with how some members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have behaved (even I have had my reservations, they are not totally absolved of the mistakes they may make), describing their frustrated disruptions as stupid or counterintuitive misses the point.
There's a power in disruption. Yes, the more obvious choice would have been to disturb the Republican candidates whose relationship with #BlackLivesMatter haven't been the friendliest, but white liberals and progressives also need to challenge instituionalized racism in a way that they haven't really before. In a recent conversation with Ta-Nahisi Coates, Roxane Gay asked the writer how allies can best serve oppressed groups.
"I think one has to even abandon the phrase 'ally' and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours," Coates said.
Sanders has proven himself an ally in the past, but he and other white people can learn that there's so much more to be done. These disruptions, for better or worse, have forced candidates like Sanders to realize that black voters want this fight to be everyone's fight. The issues surrounding racism and police brutality in this country must be addressed -- in a real way, on presidential platforms. And these disruptions seem to be working. Since the Aug. 8 events, Sanders has revealed reform plans to actually confront and combat racial inequality. O'Malley has, too.
This is huge. It means that for any other candidate who throws their hat into this race, theoretically supporting #BlackLivesMatter won't cut it anymore. Actions speak louder than words.
Clarification: Language has been amended to indicate that the rally at which Sanders was shouted off the stage was not a rally specifically for his campaign. His campaign rally occurred later that day.
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