At 8:36 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Twitter account for the Women’s March tweeted out a USA Today article titled, “Bernie Sanders to deliver opening-night speech at Women’s Convention”:
— Women's March (@womensmarch) October 12, 2017
The Detroit Free Press published the same article with the headline, “Bernie Sanders coming to Detroit to deliver opening-night speech at Women’s Convention“.
These articles, along with comments made in them by organizer Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory, gave many of us pause. After all, this is the premier women’s movement organizing event of the year outside of the Washington, D.C. Women’s March itself. When asked why “there’s a man as the headliner at the Women’s Convention”, her reply wasn’t to say that Senator Sanders isn’t a headliner. Instead, she defended the choice, saying that Congresswoman Maxine Waters for whom the convention is actually named “is also coming to the conference” and pointing out that Sen. Sanders is “probably one of the most powerful U.S. senators … on progressive issues, women’s issues, mobilizing millennials.”
For many women, this was a bridge too far. Many of these women supported Sec. Clinton during the 2016 primary and felt that Sen. Sanders was not supportive enough of her candidacy after she had won the primary by 3,708,294 votes. He was not shy about implying that the primary was somehow stolen from him and his supporters took that ball and ran with it, accusing Sec. Clinton of cheating to win the primary. By nearly 4 million votes. These actions and others left Clinton supporters with a justifiably bad taste in their mouth.
When the heavy backlash began to pour onto the Women’s Convention and Women’s March Facebook pages and Twitter timelines, Mallory went into defensive mode, even accusing those questioning their decision of “erasing the work of women of color”:
When you lash out at WOC leaders, saying we have a man as our headliner/leader, you erase our work. You erase Rep Waters' work. LISTEN TO US
— Tamika D. Mallory (@TamikaDMallory) October 12, 2017
She also implied that the mainstream media is racist since they didn’t give their announcement about Rep. Waters the same level of attention as the Sanders announcement, a not particularly newsworthy announcement given that the theme of the convention, “Reclaiming Our Time”, is from a now-famous quote from Waters:
Maybe folks should ask why mainstream media didn't give a black woman the same attention when she was announced as a headliner & speaker?
— Tamika D. Mallory (@TamikaDMallory) October 12, 2017
Yesterday, two days later, the Women’s March Twitter account posted a lengthy apology:
We are sorry we caused hurt and confusion for so many of you this week. #WomensConvention 1/
— Women's March (@womensmarch) October 14, 2017
We are sorry we caused hurt and confusion for so many of you this week. Women’s March has always promoted taking accountability when addressing the issues that most divide our movement. We have always embraced daring discussions, and a key intention of the #WomensConvention is to continue having these discussions.
We acknowledge the announcement about Senator [Sanders] gave the impression he is occupying a central role at the convention. (He is not.)
The #WomensConvention is, and always was, about centering the voices of women, and women of color in particular. We know women across the country are in pain and we regret that we added to that pain.
We believe in a collective, united movement to build power. We believe in coming to the table to figure out how to work together on our shared values. Our intention is not to endorse one flank of the progressive movement over the other. This is manifested in a schedule of 100+ workshops on every social justice topic, all led by women—and overwhelmingly women of color.
Please stay tuned as we continue to announce more about the #WomensConvention. Keep checking http://womensconvention.com for updates.
This situation has pulled the scab off what is a barely healed wound in America’s political landscape. It is undeniable that Sen. Sanders – and Sec. Clinton, as well – are polarizing figures. Supporters of each of these pillars of progressivism in America continue to harbor deeply held feelings of resentment about the 2016 primaries. Many of Sen. Sanders’ most ardent supporters were highly critical of Sec. Clinton’s book and believe that she should essentially disappear from the public eye and take her opinions and observations with her. They frequently characterize Sec. Clinton’s supporters as “centrist Dems”, a phrase that has become an epithet that implies they are little better than a Republican – perhaps worse because they claim to be progressives. Many act like members of a cult of personality where anything negative that involves their candidate in any way is perceived as an attack on the person they revere.
Many of Sec. Clinton’s most ardent supporters believe that Sen. Sanders sabotaged the Clinton general election campaign and handed the presidency to Donald Trump. They characterize Sen. Sanders’ supporters as sexist, misogynistic “Bern outs” who took Republican anti-Clinton bait hook, line, and sinker.
Of course neither of these extreme views is accurate for the vast majority of supporters of either candidate. I was a DNC delegate for Sec. Clinton but I have great affection for Sen. Sanders. My political worldview is closely aligned with his and where I find fault with his political approach is minor compared to my agreement with his political agenda. And, in most areas, once the primary was over, Sanders supporters put down their Sanders signs and picked up Clinton signs, supporting her with their time and money through Election Day. These truths get drowned out in vehement arguing between people at the edges who continue to litigate the 2016 Democratic primary to this day.
Today’s apology by the Women’s March organizers is an admission that Sen. Sanders is a polarizing figure and that having him speak the opening night was going to create a firestorm all but guaranteed to inflame the Clinton v. Sanders primary wars all over again. They claim that Sanders isn’t “occupying a central role at the convention” but the fact is that there is no way for him to be involved, particularly on opening night, without him “occupying a central role.” It’s just not possible. He is, according to at least one poll, the most popular politician in the country. It wouldn’t matter if Sen. Sanders’ role was sweeping up popcorn from the convention floor after the event concluded Friday night. He is still a headliner simply by virtue of who he is and what he represents.
And let’s be clear: Tweeting out a USA Today article titled “Bernie Sanders to deliver opening-night speech at Women’s Convention” didn’t help. It’s worth noting that there are some women – like my wife Anne, for example – feeling gaslighted by this entire experience. Organizers did little to dispel the notion that Sen. Sanders was a major headliner until their apology this morning yet at least some of the more vocal organizers accused their detractors of misrepresenting the facts. It is completely understandable why people got the wrong impression. That should have been acknowledged from the beginning and gently corrected rather than assigning blame to the very people who were given a confusing message. That DOES verge on gaslighting.
I take particular exception to the idea that questioning and pushing back on the decision to have Sen. Sanders speak on opening night is an attack on women of color simply because there are many women of color on the convention organizing team. I was personally unaware of this until hours after I published my initial essay on this issue. If ALL of the organizers were women of color, this might at least be an issue for discussion and debate. But they are not. In fact, the organizers aren’t even all women. And I feel pretty certain that others, like me, didn’t investigate the demographical makeup of the organizing team before expressing their opinions. It should go without saying that you aren’t immune from criticism simply because you are part of one demographic or another.
I’m glad that organizers of the convention have apologized. I hope that this will lower the temperature of the online discussions between Clinton and Sanders supporters that are happening in the wake of the announcement on Thursday. Unfortunately, fists are up, hackles are raised, and feelings are hurt so it’s unlikely that these arguments will end with unity and a sense of common purpose. And that’s unfortunate because if progressives ever needed to be united, that time is now.
[Photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]