The following is a guest post from Sommer Foster, the Political Director for Equality Michigan and a long time political activist. Like Anne and me, Sommer was at the #BlackLivesMatter protest during the presidential candidates’ townhall meeting last Saturday at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix. Anne and I have shared our perspectives as white progressive allies. Sommer brings the perspective of a person of color, someone who lives with the plague of systemic racism and discrimination every day of her life. It’s a powerful perspective, one that should be shared widely.
You can follow Sommer on Twitter at twitter.com/SNFoster.
“Progressives should know that each one of our gains came because someone stood up and demanded it.”
The day before I left for Netroots Nation, I had a conversation with a white friend who is married to a Black man. She told me, that during a conversation with her husband, he mentioned that when he goes for a run at night, he always uses the Map My Run app so that, in case he is stopped by police, he has proof of what he was doing, and where he had been. She couldn’t believe it and was extremely hurt that her husband felt so unsafe in their suburban neighborhood. Her husband is a good, kind man, with a good job and that fear felt so foreign to her. But, unfortunately, I could relate.
A few weeks before that, my 4th grade son came home and told me one of our neighbors, another 4th grader, called him a “black ass n*gger.” Not only was I shocked that my 10-year old had to deal with that, I was shocked that it happened in my diverse community and in my diverse neighborhood.
In the midst of all of that, I was asked to help lead a discussion for a Queer People of Color Caucus at Netroots Nation along with Faith Cheltenham, Daniel Villareal, Eyad Alkurbi, and Angela Peoples. Following the advice of Angela, we decided to create a safe place for people of color to talk about self-care. We unapologetically asked that the attendees be people of color, to allow for an open conversation.
The pain that activists of color face doing social justice work, the feelings of PTSD from being constantly bombarded with reports of people of color being killed by police, the church shooting in Charleston, and living life as a person of color in America can be exhausting. We thought it was important to create a place for healing.
I didn’t expect to find out that some thought they were excluded and complained. They told others they wanted a queer whites-only caucus next year. I guess I assumed that progressive activists knew the importance of safe spaces and self care. I was wrong.
At the Presidential Town Hall, I was feeling raw emotionally. I researched the candidates quite a bit, but I didn’t feel that any of them really spoke to me.
I was excited that the panel was going to be moderated by Jose Antonio Vargas. I know that he cares very deeply about issues of intersectionality, and would hold Sanders and O’Malley accountable on issues like race, immigration and inequality.
While O’Malley was questioned, I remember thinking that he was doing a very good job of sticking to the script and not really answering the questions.
Then, all of a sudden I heard the sweet sound of women singing, “What Side Are You On, My People?” As they marched to the front of the convention center, I saw a diverse group of Latino, Asian, Queer, and Middle-Eastern people being led by Black women. At that moment, I had a choice to make: Did I stay seated (not really an option), did I stand where I was, or did I make my way to the middle of the room to stand with the protestors?
As I was contemplating my decision, I overheard an older white man say, “These people are animals, why don’t they go back to Baltimore?” And, as I looked around, most people looked annoyed. In that moment, I decided to stand there, chant, clap and sing along. I knew that by standing there, the folks around me would have to sit in their discomfort knowing that I was watching.
I was moved to tears as Tia Oso talked about the legacy of racism in Arizona as the protestors chanted #SayHerName to honor Sandra Bland, as they read the names of other Black women killed by police, as Trans Activist Elle Hearns said, “If I die in police custody, say my name, not the one I was given but the one that I chose,” as Patrisse Cullors said, “We are in a state of emergency and if you do not feel that emergency, you are not human,” and as they chanted in unison “Black Lives Matter!”
I was disappointed when Martin O’Malley said “white lives matter.” It was completely tone-deaf. I was even more disappointed that Bernie Sanders’ answer to structural racism was about the Affordable Care Act, raising the minimum wage, and free college.
Sandra Bland had just gotten her dream job, she had a college education, and she was the member of a prestigious sorority. But none of that was enough to save her life. I was disappointed that Sanders did not understand that income inequality is the symptom, but racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are the disease, and when those intersect, the consequences can be fatal. If you aren’t prepared to address that, you aren’t prepared to be President of the United States.
Though I was disappointed in the candidates, I was even more disappointed in the people in the room. As I looked around, I saw progressive “allies” look annoyed, uncomfortable, and inconvenienced. As the protest was ending, I noticed one Black woman take off her Bernie Sanders button and leave her sign on the table.
I can’t really describe my feelings in that moment. I was proud of those women. I was moved by their stories. I was emotional. And I was pissed off that people in the room didn’t seem to understand that we are fighting for our lives.
After the protest, random people walked up to me to ask what I thought. When I told them I was disappointed in the candidates’ responses, they would tell me that Bernie marched with Martin Luther King. When I told them that wasn’t relevant, they would tell me that he marched with Farrakhan. When I said that wasn’t enough, they would tell me he wanted free college. As the conversations would go on, their voices would get louder, their fingers would start pointing, and I would get frustrated, end the conversation, and walk away. I tried to engage with many people, until one guy cornered me at the Netroots Nation after-party, put his hands on my shoulders, and told me that the protestors had no class and that Bernie Sanders deserves our respect for 50 years of fighting for civil rights. I stopped engaging at that point. I no longer felt safe in a progressive space.
I could not believe that I was defending the humanity of protestors who dared to speak up in a room full of progressives. Bayard Rustin says that, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” Progressives should know that each one of our gains came because someone stood up and demanded it. We don’t assume people are on our side; we ask. We hold our allies accountable. We don’t ask for permission to protest. We know that direct action is never polite. We don’t wait until it is convenient. We are activists; we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I will forever be proud to witness the day that Black Women shifted the conversation in a presidential election. I am proud that three presidential candidates have acknowledged that Black Lives Matter. Maybe we can finally have a conversation about structural racism in this country. Maybe we can finally make systemic change.