The Value of Protest

As a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, my first reaction to hearing about yesterday’s Black Lives Matter protest at Netroots Nation was disappointment.  This looks bad, I thought.  Bad for Bernie, who is the only presidential candidate with any chance of challenging structural injustice.  And bad for Black Lives Matter, who could easily be interpreted as shutting down progressive discussions about immigration and economic inequality to make people focus on their priorities.  I’ve had my share of mistakes during protests, as have all the activists I respect most, so I certainly had some sympathy.  But I thought their protest was just that: a mistake.

Then I watched the video of Sanders responding to the protest, or should I say, failing to respond and instead just speaking over and past them.  He tried to just continue with his stump speech and seemed annoyed with the disruption.  Several times he looked at moderator Jose Antonio Vargas as if he expected Vargas to control these women, once asking, “Are you in charge here?”  The closest he came to discussing policing issues directly was mentioning his success with community policing in Burlington, VT, a city that was pretty much all white and pretty much irrelevant to the discussion of racist policing.

As black women, those activists are people who have always been systematically locked out of the public discourse, and they were making their voices heard even if it ruffled some feathers.  In theory, Bernie’s campaign platform is all about the way ordinary citizens have been locked out of the political discourse and the need to make those voices heard.  But when the very thing he says he is looking for appeared right in front of him, he didn’t see it.  As my dad says, if it was a snake it would have bit him.  And this time, it did.

Others have written thoughtful reflections on what this protest meant for challenging white privilege.  The value for me personally was in what the protest exposed in Bernie Sanders, and by extension, myself.  When asked directly about white supremacy and police violence against people of color, Sanders responded by talking about fixing the economic system and providing more jobs.  He didn’t explicitly connect unemployment with getting killed by police, but the implication was that if a black person doesn’t have a job, we can pretty well expect that he’ll get gunned down by a cop.  Bernie was focused on Big Ideas, and derailing that to talk about one woman, or even one certain segment of the population, seemed like a frustrating distraction.

The thing is, this specific protest was in honor of Sandra Bland, who had a job when she was arrested for not using a turn signal and died in custody.  In fact, she moved to Texas for her job, but her pursuit of a career didn’t save her.  On the other hand, the 31% of unemployed white high school graduates mentioned by Sanders don’t get killed by police at anywhere near the rate of the 51% of unemployed black high school graduates.  In retrospect, Bernie’s response to the BLM disruption looks like an exercise in avoiding the obvious fact that race matters.

Like Sanders, my tendency is to zoom out from the personal and look at things structurally and systemically instead.  When I think about anti-racism, I tend to focus more on changing institutionalized inequality than on challenging individual attitudes.  In the past I’ve worried that the BLM movement’s focus on the names of specific people killed by police might simplify the need to dismantle complex systems into a perspective that considers justice done when specific killer cops are prosecuted.  The most disappointing part about watching Sanders yesterday was the degree to which I recognized myself in him.

But the BLM protestors chanted “Say her name!” in reference to Sandra Bland because Bland’s particularity demonstrates that increased economic opportunities alone will not solve the problem.  We also have to actually confront racism.  Bernie never did say her name, and his failure to depart from his script to validate the particularity of Bland’s life is inseparable from his failure to really see the particular living black women standing right in front of him as the embodiment of everything his campaign strives to be.

I think Bernie Sanders can actually win the presidency, but to do so he needs the energy and grassroots organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement on his side.  It’s early enough in the campaign that with some serious reflection and humility, he can learn from this and earn the trust of the movement.  And importantly, when he is president, this learning experience will make him far better at dealing with the reality of racism and other kinds of oppression that plague our country.

The BLM protest revealed the deficit not only in Bernie’s campaign, but in the approach of folks like myself who would rather avoid the particular lived experience of individuals who suffer from oppression.  An exclusive wide-angle view on structures is just as much of an oversimplification as an exclusive narrow focus on individuals.  Like any oversimplification, it compromises our ability to find adequate solutions to real world problems.  Avoiding the particular also blinds us to our real allies when they are right in front of us.

Some might say that people like me could have been taught these lessons without disrupting a critical dialogue with Jose Antonio Vargas and possibly damaging Sanders’ campaign.  Maybe so.  But that would have required people like me and Bernie Sanders to really see and listen to these people, which was exactly the problem.  Part of the point is that the lived experience of black women is excluded from the public discourse.  It’s never going to be their turn to have their voices heard, so they have to create the opportunities to make their voices heard.  Protests are always criticized as being at the wrong time because those who need to protest are never the people writing the agenda.  That’s the value of protest.

Bernie Sanders rightly recognizes that all of us are increasingly excluded from the political discourse that shapes our country.  If his campaign is to realize it’s revolutionary potential, we would do all well to follow the lead of the women of Black Lives Matter who made their voices heard at Netroots Nation.

Showing 11 reactions

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  • David Slesinger
    commented 2015-07-24 11:28:34 -0400
    It was nice of Tim to notify me of my friend Kevin Zeese’s recent comments in this thread, but I would have preferred he read what I wrote. It’s not that elections or the Democratic Party are unimportant. It’s that Tim is the rare person who has served serious jail time for his beliefs. I find that in general American protesters are deeply committed to being ignorant of how Gandhi’s satyagraha differs from popular protest practice in the US. I’m critical of American culture in general and assert that current American culture is best described as having “pride in ignorance.” Ignorance is part of being human, but pride in ignorance is spiritually ugly. I have Tim’s private contact info, but he didn’t give them to me. i’d prefer that this communication be sufficient to start at least some private dialog. I’ve encountered too many activists who consider all nonviolence means is " I didn’t hit anybody today." Tim should be willing to discuss nonviolent resistance technique. Others should,too. I am at [email protected]
  • Victor Tiffany
    commented 2015-07-24 06:20:42 -0400
    Below, Kevin Zeese makes a point no one should miss: “Sanders is at 15% in the polls, Clinton has a 40 point lead.”

    There is a way for a minority candidate to hold sway over a majority candidate in a primary season. It’s called leverage.

    A melodramatic analogy: No doubt, some skeptics will wonder if the Bernie or Bust pledge is like the wildly desperate guy–aiming a loaded pistol at his own head–who declares, “if I don’t get my way, I’ll pull the trigger.” That is like the Bernie or Bust pledge. You are a Sanders supporter. The threat to “pull the trigger” is the refusal to vote for a status quo Democrat even if it pushes a Republican in the White House.

    This is the #BernieOrBust pledge site:
  • David Slesinger
    commented 2015-07-22 09:50:36 -0400
    Fine article. Very perceptive. Now appears to be a good time to tell Tim that when I tried to contact him before he entered divinity school, he ignored me. Maybe he did not see what I wrote. I try now again to initiate dialog about how Gandhi’s satyagraha differs from what is popular among American protesters.
    [email protected]
  • Ronald Pires
    commented 2015-07-21 22:35:48 -0400
    As I have been told, BLM requested booth space at NetRoots, but NetRoots had refused. It was after this refusal, after BLM was riled up at their exclusion, that BLM showed up at the Sanders/O’Malley session, apparently deciding to vent their anger there. NetRoots then lost control of the session. They created the problem, and they should take the blame.
  • Reilly Capps
    commented 2015-07-21 22:09:22 -0400
    Oooo. The roiling bubbling, uncomfortable friction of actual communication. Not smooth dialog, not well-rehearsed talking points, but the type of communication that lets you see how little communication is actually happening. Can Bernie talk to black people? How often has he actually done so? When was the last time there was a populist anti-corporatist who could really talk to the people? Nader couldn’t, not really. Maybe Bernie needs accompaniment, like Luther, Obama’s anger translator.

    Bernie: “90 percent of the wealth is held by 1 percent of the people.”
    Burly, Joe the Plumber-type next to him: “Rich people be real rich. They own this world! We getting trampled!”
    Bernie: “We instituted community policing in Burlington. Outside forces create an atmosphere of intimidation.”
    Translator: “Cops roll in my town from the burbs, looking all fat-gutted in they bullet vests. Who gonna shoot you, copper? You stopping jaywalkers! Take the vest off and lemme slip you half a j and a bbq sandwich, then see if your shooting worries rise or rise.”
    Bernie: “The criminal justice system is systemically incentivized so ask to lead it toward being corrupt.”
    Translator: “Rich dudes make money off your trouble. You do a nickle, they make a dime. And who’s paying? We all pay, my friends.”

    And, here …

    “Say her name! say her name! …”
    Bernie: “Systemic inequality jobs living wage blah blah …”
    “Sandra! Her name was Sandra! Saaaaaaannnnnndddddrrrrraaaaa! Sandra sandra sandra got snuffed by some cops too happy bout their paycheck to and putting a sister on lockdown to check on her neck. SSSSSAAAANNNNDDDRRRAAA. Now shut the eff up so daddy can talk!”
  • Michael Fox
    commented 2015-07-21 21:57:56 -0400
    And best of all, Bernie said her and others’ names in his speeches the very next day in Houston and Dallas. Deep breaths, everybody.
  • Kevin Zeese
    commented 2015-07-21 18:36:08 -0400
    After posting my other comment I spoke to someone who was at the Netroots Town Hall who is visiting us. She mentioned that by that evening, Sanders had been impacted. At one event, a Latino event, he said that he did not know how to solve structural racism and told the audience he wanted to hear people’s suggestions. At another event that night he incorporated the issue into about a five minute segment of his speech.

    That is the kind of response you hope to see from a protest.
  • Kevin Zeese
    commented 2015-07-21 16:53:16 -0400
    Bernie has shown a penchant for acting badly when he is criticized by someone speaking out from the audience. He losses his temper quickly. On an issue where I have strong disagreement with Sanders, Palestine, Sanders yelled at the audience: “Shut up, you don’t have the microphone.” He started to threaten arrests, but an audience member challenged him on that and he backed down. Here’s the video with a little commentary:

    Sanders better learn to handle an audience better because his political opponents will be able to embarass him if he has this kind of temper and this talking down to people approach. If there a few incidents like these during the campaign, he is finished. Don’t put it past Clinton operatives to use this tactic to embarass Sanders.

    I’m not as optimisitic that Sanders can win. There is a lot of hype around him right now because he has held some big events but Ralph Nader filled areanas across the country in 2000 and Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president ran for president and filled Yankee Stadium, but neither won. Right now Sanders is at 15% in the polls, Clinton has a 40 point lead. It is 7 months away from the first votes so a lot can change, but a lot has to change if Sanders can even be considered a real challenger.

    Sanders made the mistake of running in the Democratic primary. No insurgent has ever won a Democratic primary. Their primary system is rigged to prevent it. Twenty percent of the delegates are superdelegates, elected officials and party hacks, who are the final block for the power structure. But, the primary system is set up to stop insurgents. In March there are 23 states voting, it is impossible to be in all those states so candidates need hundreds of millions for advertising and mailings. This is designed to ensure only candidates with money win.

    For his whole career Sanders was an independent but he decided to run in the Democratic primary. That decision lost him my support and my trust. How can someone give up a foundational political belief in independence for the convenience of running? What else will he give up to be president?

    The reason the agenda of Sanders, DeChristopher, me and others does not become law is because it is blocked by the corporate duopoly. Until we weaken the duopoly we will not win. I realize how hard it is to run outside the duopoly but that is the path we needed him to take because it would open up space for an independent alternative. Nearly a majority of Americans are registered independent, the highest ever, this was the time for Sanders to run independent, get the nomination or endorsement of multiple parties, hold a unity convention, push hard to be in the debates (lawsuits are already filed) and help build the essential ingredient to real change – an alternative to the Demcratic Party: Mass movement plus an independent political party are the key ingredients to transformational change. This has always been true throughout US history. Sanders running in the Democratic primary is a setback for the electoral part of that recipe because he re-enforces, rather than challenges the Democratic Party.
  • Jim Wittebols
    followed this page 2015-07-21 10:27:50 -0400
  • Jim Wittebols
    commented 2015-07-21 10:27:30 -0400
    You are a wise man. As someone living in Detroit (and white and male), I have learned to do a lot of listening. But too often we on the left as a whole and in its constituent parts are content to protest. Protest is not dialogue and at some point the Black Lives Matter movement needs to develop a strategy for pressing real solutions to the issues of police violence. Not only getting killer cops convicted but preventing the killings in the first place. Special prosecutors at the state level are at least part of the solution to the first; the second is a far more challenging task that can’t be summed up on a bumper sticker or rally slogan. I am afraid that the BLM movement will end up like Occupy. Lots of energy and activity but not much in terms of consequences.
  • Jeffery Wolfe
    commented 2015-07-20 00:12:50 -0400
    Great thoughtful post, Tim. You’ve clearly shown me a new viewpoint from your own learning. Thanks.