Events — July 20, 2015 at 11:31 am

Post-Netroots Nation reflections on the #BlackLivesMatter protest – it’s time to reject “respectability politics”


“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King

NOTE: You can view more photos from the event in Anne’s post HERE.

In the two days since black activists from the #BlackLivesMatter movement took over a Netroots Nation townhall forum with presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, much ink, virtual and otherwise, has been spilled discussing the action. As I write this, our reporting on it (HERE) has had over 36,000 pageviews and nearly 500 comments. It’s been discussed in countless articles and hashed over on multiple television programs.

Much of the discussion, however, misses crucial elements of what happened on Saturday in Phoenix. Sanders supporters have accused me of being anti-Bernie which makes it clear that they didn’t read my essay carefully. I will be clear and emphatic here: I have not decided who I will vote for in the Democratic primary next year but, after watching Sanders in action on Saturday from 20 feet away, I am less likely to vote for him now than I was before the event. Of the two candidates on the stage that day, O’Malley handled it far better than Sanders.

You can see O’Malley segment here (the protest begins around 19:30 mark):

O’Malley rarely interrupted the protesters. He treated them with respect and did not try to talk over them or to shush them. In fact, had he not blundered with his statement that “white lives matter, all lives matter” — a statement akin to declaring “all diseases matter” at an AIDS research fundraising event — he would have done as well as anyone could in that moment and his apology for making that statement in the middle of a #BlackLivesMatter protest seemed honest and sincere.

Sanders, on the other hand, handled it surprisingly badly. Here’s his section:

One thing that is hard to see and hear in this video is how Sanders kept talking while completely ignoring the protesters, not even looking at them as he plunged on with his stump speech.

When O’Malley responded to what he would do to dismantle the systemic racism that is resulting in mass incarceration of black people and the shockingly high number of black men and women dying at the hands of law enforcement, he had some specific elements and he promised more detail in his forthcoming criminal justice reform package:

Specifically, I believe that every police department in America should have to report, in an open and transparent and timely way, all police-involved shootings, all discourtesy complaints, and all brutality complaints. […]

I believe that all departments should have civilian review boards. We implemented one and it works. But they have to be staffed and it’s not enough just to have the board. You have to give them the money to hire their own detectives so they can investigate whatever they want to investigate.

While on stage, Gov. O’Malley was calm, he listened, and he was patient.

Sanders, on the other hand was impatient and, frankly, condescending. Instead of listening and hearing, he was insistent that he be able to finish his stump speech. When he finally got around to addressing the question of what he would do to address systemic, lethal racism in America, he talked about more jobs, increasing the minimum wage, debt-free college, a trade policy that emphasizes investments in America and not low-wage countries elsewhere. His only specific proposal was $13 trillion in investments to create more jobs with a passing mention of “community policing”.

As I have said publicly multiple times, I am probably more aligned politically with Bernie Sanders than any of the other candidates. However, his inability to deal with pressure from people who are mostly allies makes me fearful that he doesn’t have the temperament to be a good president. The contrast on Saturday to O’Malley’s calm patience and Sanders’ irritated impatience was stark and, in my opinion, telling.

David Dayen has probably the best analysis I’ve seen on this, though he believes that both candidates got a failing grade.

I also want to address the criticism of the BLM protesters that they were disrespectful and “didn’t let Bernie answer”. This is completely untrue. Sanders was given ample opportunity to explain what he would do to end the killing of black people by police in America and his answer was getting money out of politics, more jobs, free college, more domestic investment, and a higher minimum wage. This answer suggests one of two things (or possibly both) and both are disturbing. First, it suggests that Sanders has a song sheet that he is singing from and it doesn’t include anything that involves police killing. It’s simply not on his radar.

Another possibility is that Sanders believes that black people being killed by police is a direct result of them living in poverty. This, while not overtly racist, is, at its core, incredibly racist. It suggests that Sanders believes that if they had jobs and weren’t “in the streets” to use his own words, they wouldn’t be getting killed by police. The truth is that law enforcement should NOT be killing black people in the numbers they are now for any reason and they should be not killing ANY unarmed black people. But they are. And no amount of jobs programs or free college fixes that.

I cannot and do not fault protesters from interrupting him when he was refusing to address their question. That is what holding our candidates accountable is all about and during the presidential primary is EXACTLY when we should be doing that. The idea that it’s a “circular firing squad” is absurd and shows that people aren’t interested in a real primary; they simply want to anoint their favorite candidate and be done with it.

Finally, I have read comments suggesting that this protest somehow hurts Democrats or the #BlackLivesMatter movement or the #SayHerName movement and divides us. These protesters, we’re told, should be more respectful and know their place. I reject this with the core of my progressive belief system. No significant social change in this country has EVER happened without disruptive action. From the courageous activists in the ACT-UP movement to civil rights demonstrators and beyond, every major cultural shift took place using disruption tactics and claiming a space for communicating when no space existed. If we cannot get our own allies to address important issues like police brutality and lethality, how can we expect change to happen? The notion of “respectability politics” is one that should be rejected by progressives in this situation and if you’re not rejecting it loudly, you should take a very hard look at yourself and ask why not. Because there is a strong likelihood that you are jaded by your own white privilege or your participation in the cult of personality surrounding your candidate.

And, yes, Hillary Clinton should be held accountable, as well. And, unless I miss my guess, she very much will be.

UPDATE: One thing I have received push back on was characterizing Sanders’ exit as turning his back on BLM activists. Perhaps I was too subtle in using this as a metaphor but the fact is that he did turn his back on them by insisting that the event continue to be about him and not allowing BLM the space to be heard. But that’s not all, as David Dayen reported in his piece, after the townhall, Sanders cancelled all of his remaining Netroots Nation events, “including meetings with black and brown activists” and if that’s not turning your back on them, I don’t know what is:

The reaction of the candidates after the protest was varied and significant. O’Malley spent the entire day sitting with activists, publicly apologizing for his “white/all lives matter” remarks in an interview with This Week in Blackness and generally atoning for his performance. Sanders canceled all his events, including meetings with black and brown activists. At his evening speech before 11,000 in the same convention center, he did obliquely address the issue, using practiced lines he has said in the past but with a little more depth. “If any police officer breaks the law, that officer must be held accountable,” Sanders said. On Sunday, he uttered Bland’s name at a rally in Dallas. But the no-shows earlier in the day just exacerbated the problem.

If Sanders is recalibrating his message and his approach based on Saturdays protest, I have only two words: Mission Accomplished.