Events — July 18, 2015

White progressives get a taste of anger & frustration as #BlackLivesMatter activists upstage Bernie Sanders


NOTE: This post has been updated HERE and you can see more photos from the protest in Anne’s post HERE.

The main event at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona this year was a “Presidential Town Hall” featuring one-on-one discussions between journalist and undocumented American Jose Antonio Vargas and presidential candidates Governor Martin O’Malley and Senator Bernie Sanders.

I was sitting at a table in the front of the stage when the doors opened. Within moments, a wave of Sanders supported washed into the room to get seats as close to the podium as possible. Many were wearing green Robin Hood caps and sporting large Bernie head signs. The mostly-white crowd were clearly pumped and ready to hear their hero speak about income inequality, the excessive power of monolithic banks, and the other socio-economic issues for which he is so revered.

Gov. O’Malley was the first to take the stage with Vargas who jumped right into it by asking questions related to the sharp rise in arrests of black youths under O’Malley’s administration. Not long into the conversation, however, black activists, most of whom were women, began singing/chanting in the back of the room, “What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

They marched to the front of the seating area and spent the 20 minutes or so completely shutting down the event and doing call and response-style speeches about the inequalities faced by blacks and other racial minorities in the justice system, in treatment by law enforcement, and in society in general.

Black Alliance for Just Immigration National Director Tia Oso and Patrisse Cullors, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, took the stage to make speeches and to ask a question.

Tia Oso

Activist Patrisse Cullors

Vargas eventually regained control and Gov. O’Malley was able to attempt to answer the central question he was asked about what he would do to end systemic racism in our society. He was, however, interrupted throughout and generally unable to have his voice heard. At one point, protestors chanted “Black lives matter!” to which he responded, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Despite the truth of this, it was a tone deaf response that shows just how little he has learned about the Black Lives Matter movement and how statements like this are widely viewed as attempting to minimize a movement focused on the outrageous and unconscionable number of black people being killed by law enforcement in America.

UPDATE: Gov. quickly apologized in an interview on the This Week in Blackness (TWiB) stage immediately following the event.

After Gov. O’Malley left the stage, Senator Sanders came out. He, too, was shouted down and interrupted repeatedly. Unlike Gov. O’Malley who allowed the protesters to be heard, Sanders was visibly irritated, saying things like, “If you don’t want me here, I will leave.” He even shushed them at one point.

At times he plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

Sitting in the middle of this maelstrom was a fascinating experience. I, like many of the others there, was initially irritated by the protestors. I was there to hear the candidates and was frustrated that they weren’t being heard. Even a bit angry, in fact. “These are your allies,” I thought. “Why on earth are you attacking them? Why are you disrupting an event where the people there are sympathetic to your cause?”

Frustration. Anger. Being silenced.




Talked over.


Every single one of these emotions that ran through my white privileged brain in the first few moments of the protest until I was slapped across the face with what I was being forced to confront. Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country. But, instead of being inconvenienced by not being able to hear a politician speak, they face them in the context of being slaughtered in the streets by the police officers who are tasked to protect them, incarcerated in astonishingly disparate numbers, and blamed for not being able to escape from the prison of poverty that holds far too many of them in bondage.

After that realization, my perception of the event changed 180°. From that moment on, I saw what was happening in front of me with new eyes. The black and brown people around me were on their feet, chanting, demanding to be heard.

The white people around me were sitting, looked frustrated.



Talked over.


For just that moment, even progressives, sympathetic allies to the Black Lives Matter movement, got a tiny taste of what the movement is REALLY about. It’s about having your voice heard and taken seriously. It’s about, just for a while, having to shut the fuck up and actually LISTEN to someone else. About this not being about THEM but something outside of them, something they really have very little personal experience or first-hand knowledge of.

Bernie Sanders didn’t come to Netroots Nation to change any minds. Netroots Nation attendees weren’t coming to his speech to be swayed or to be convinced of anything. This was a national politician making an appearance in front of his adoring base. Nothing risked, nothing gained other than to fan the flames of their love and support just a bit more.

These progressives came for one thing but they received something entirely different. They received an education delivered to them during an exquisitely teachable moment by a group of black activists who had the audacity to not behave themselves but to claim for themselves a space where something transformative could actually happen.

Later on Twitter I was told these activists were “disrespectful”. Hmmm. Maybe so. But spending your entire life being respectful in the face of frustration and anger and inequality won’t do much to change things. Tia Oso and Patrisse Cullors and all of the organizers of this event are to be commended, in my opinion. They seized a teachable moment for themselves and used it to educate people who are, largely, their allies. Whether those allies see it for what it was or as a bunch of uppity black folks being disrespectful will separate those who are truly progressive allies from those who only mouth the words without fully understanding the Black Lives Matter movement and the implications of being an ally.

In some ways today was a crossroads for netroots progressives. Some of us will be strengthened as allies of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others, sadly, will turn their backs and walk away.