#BlackLivesMatter More Than the Hurt Feelings of White Progressives
From the October 2015 PNL #846
Editor’s Note: A slightly longer version of this article was originally published at rhrealitycheck.org on August 11, 2015, after Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a political rally of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Seattle.
Yesterday morning, I tweeted something that now seems irrational.
I tweeted that there was no way I would vote for Bernie Sanders, and that is entirely due to the relentless campaign of harassment to which some of his more overzealous supporters have subjected me and other Black people on Twitter and Facebook. I even mentioned, as I have in the past, that I would vote for Hillary Clinton out of spite, even though I have not yet forgiven her for the racist campaign that she ran in 2008 against President Obama.
As soon as I tweeted it, I knew it was irrational. Why would I refuse to vote for a person whose political positions are most aligned with mine simply because his followers have treated me with overwhelming disrespect, condescension, and flat-out ugliness? It’s irrational. I admit it.
But do you know what else is irrational? The behavior of Sanders’ fanatical supporters in response to the disruption by #BlackLivesMatter activists at the Netroots Nation convention and the Sanders rally in Seattle led by Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford this past weekend.
The last few weeks have exposed some real ugliness in the progressive movement, ugliness that has been simmering just below the surface for a long time, but which, due to Black women’s increasing recognition of our political power coupled with leadership in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and unapologetic commitment to dismantling white supremacy, has erupted into a fountain of White Progressive™ racism.
And it is appalling.
So it is in that context that I frustratedly tweeted that I would never vote for Bernie Sanders.
But the thing about irrationality is that sometimes it subsides and rational thought takes hold. And so it did with me.
Yes, I am tired of being belittled, and slandered, and talked down to, but that doesn’t mean that I should sacrifice my well-being and the well-being of my community out of spite. And I suspect that the many Black people that I have seen who have echoed my sentiment will change their tune in the upcoming months.
But for that to happen, Sanders’ overzealous supporters need to back off.__
Sanders’ fanatics have been viciously harassing Black people on Twitter and Facebook for weeks now—ever since the #BlackLivesMatter activists stood up during the presidential town hall at Netroots Nation and demanded that Sanders provide substantive answers about what he would do about the epidemic of police violence in the Black community.
In the wake of that protest, Sanders supporters took to Twitter to condescend, patronize, and belittle Black people, talking to us as if we are stupid and don’t know what’s best for us, and therefore should listen to our White Progressive™ betters lest we usher in a Trump presidency or a Clinton presidency or whomever is the Boogey Man du jour.
These supporters have twisted and perverted what is a movement about the liberation of Black people and turned it into a weapon to be used against us. They threaten to withdraw their support in protesting state violence against Black people. In the wake of the Seattle protest over the weekend, Sanders’ fanatical supporters behaved just as horribly as they had after the Netroots Nation protest.
If this progressive rage—primarily white progressive rage—at Black voters continues, one has to wonder whether or not Sanders can be defined by the company he keeps, and whether that company will sink any chance he has at becoming the next Democratic nominee.
And let me be clear: It won’t be Sanders’ fault if he loses the primary. It will be the fault of his supporters.
The Protests are working.
Despite reacting poorly to the protests when they were happening, Sanders has been doing all the right things.
Mere days after the Netroots protest, Bernie Sanders began tweeting about #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName. Indeed, the day after the protest, he said Sandra Bland’s name at a rally in Dallas.
And in a move I consider savvy, he hired Symone Sanders, a young Black organizer with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as his press secretary. And whatever your view of the hire—in the New Republic, Jamil Smith writes that “hiring Symone Sanders, a black woman, as his press secretary… can’t be expected to mollify the movement. #BlackLivesMatter wants policies for black people, not black people for his policies”—it is undeniable that the #BlackLivesMatter protesters are inspiring Bernie Sanders to address the concerns of Black women.
On the morning after the Seattle protest, Sanders published a page to his website that addresses racial justice, and specifically addresses police violence on its own terms. His racial justice platform includes Physical Violence (i.e., police violence), Political Violence (i.e., disenfranchisement), Legal Violence (i.e., mass incarceration of people of color), and his bread and butter, Economic Violence (i.e., unemployment and income inequality).
This would not have happened were it not for the #BlackLivesMatter protesters.
Indeed, Smith writes, “A campaign representative reached out to me to say that those proposals, in the works for the three weeks since Netroots, were derived from a speech that’s been on the site since July 25.”
Just yesterday, Bernie Sanders tackled the issue of institutional racism at a rally in Los Angeles.
And let’s not forget that immediately after the Netroots protest, Democracy for America, the organization founded by Howard Dean in 2004, issued a press release via email stating the following:
“After hearing the calls of our friends in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, that’s exactly what we intend to do. Here is what Democracy for America is committing to as an organization with a mission to elect more and better Democrats across the country:
• We will ask every single candidate who asks for our support what they have done, and what they will do to stand up alongside the Movement for Black Lives while confronting structural racism within our country’s culture of white supremacy. As TIME magazine reported, this will apply to candidates running up and down the ballot—from local and state level candidates to the 2016 Democratic presidential contenders.
• DFA will be working with campaigns to communicate with voters more often and more effectively about race by actively helping campaigns poll on racial justice issues and amplify messaging that takes on structural racism.”
None of this would have happened if not for the #BlackLivesMatter protesters.
The #BlackLivesMatter activists are changing the political conversation. Black women are flexing our political muscles. And it is obvious that Bernie Sanders and the progressive infrastructure is listening.
The only people who continue to stalwartly refuse to listen are his fanatical supporters. They stubbornly continue to claim that the protests are stupid and counterproductive despite clear evidence to the contrary, and they express their displeasure in rhetoric steeped in racism and misogynoir.
And it’s profoundly depressing.
Sanders and the Need for the Black Vote
Ultimately, Bernie Sanders has a coalition problem. His coalition is comprised of primarily white progressives and liberals, unsurprising for a man who hails from a state that is 94 percent white. And when a vocal section of that coalition thinks belittling and harassing Black people is a smart way to encourage Black people to vote for Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders likely has a larger problem on his hands than he probably realizes.
Black women are the most loyal and reliable Democratic voting bloc. We won the election for Obama in 2012. Black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout in 2012. We won the gubernatorial election for Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.
No Democratic candidate can win without the support of Black voters, particularly Black women. And now that that is clear, we are no longer content for Democrats to take our votes for granted. The crisis in our community is too grave to blindly support a candidate and then hope they’ll get around to addressing our issues.
And when we see Sanders supporters entertaining conspiracy theories about the #BlackLivesMatter movement being funded by George Soros or Hillary Clinton, we have to wonder why it is easier for white and non-Black progressives to believe in ludicrous theories about #BlackLivesMatter attempting to destroy the progressive movement or destroy Bernie Sanders than it is to believe that the movement is beyond partisan politics—that the Black women who are standing up in protest are fighting for their very lives and the lives of their children.
The name-calling and slander of #BlackLivesMatter supporters and activists, particularly Black women, by white and non-Black progressives is truly shameful.
Ben Cohen at The Daily Banter called the protesters “idiots.” Hamilton Nolan at Gawker called them “stupid.” The staff of Ring of Fire Radio wrote a truly hateful post in which they complained that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was too focused on Black queer women—because God forbid a movement decenter whiteness—and that Black lesbians (i.e., the founders of #BlackLivesMatter) were trying to destroy Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. (That post has since been removed.)
Marissa Johnson, one of the women who led the Seattle protest, has been smeared in a blog post being circulated on Patheos as well as a fact-free blog post on PoliticusUSA as a “Sarah Palin supporter” and a “radical Christian.” (She supported Palin when she was 17, and no longer does now that she is 24).
These are the same people who will swear up and down that they are your allies, right up until the protest for Black lives inconveniences them in some way or they disagree with the activists’ tactics.
To those primarily white and non-Black progressives spreading conspiracy theories about #BlackLivesMatter being funded by Soros or paid by the Clinton campaign —as if it is so unfathomable that a group of Black women would be politically savvy enough to organize protests without backing from a rich white savior like Soros or the Clintons—I can only say that your behavior is fundamentally anti-progressive and practically indistinguishable from the behavior of your average Tea Partier or Rush Limbaugh enthusiast.
And to those white and non-Black progressives who are not buying into the more outlandish conspiracy theories, but are nevertheless criticizing the protests as rude, ineffective, stupid, or inconvenient, and who have penned articles offering unwanted and unneeded advice to these brave Black women, I will only say this: Your opinion doesn’t matter.
As Monique Teal recently wrote for Daily Kos:
“Posting that you don’t understand the strategy behind a tactic exposes you as clinging to white supremacy. Allies don’t decide the strategy of an oppressed group, they support the strategy said group develops. Period. Stop telling us that we need your validation of our humanity. Because that’s what you’re saying every time you talk about “strategy.” You can house your privilege in a thousand ways but ultimately, telling people to shut up because you don’t like what they are saying and how they are organizing makes you an oppressor.”
You may be inclined to point to disagreement among Black people about the tactics of the #BlackLivesMatter activists and glom on to that disagreement to voice your own disagreement.
There is certainly disagreement within the movement about tactics, but that’s a conversation to be had by and among Black people about the liberation of Black people. It’s simply not your place.
That is not to say that we as Black people do not welcome white allies. But that allyship cannot be conditioned upon respectability politics or upon Black people acting in a way that makes you comfortable or else. That’s not allyship. That’s a threat.
If you intend to fight with us for our lives, you cannot wield your allyship as a Sword of Damocles to be dropped on our heads as soon as #BlackLivesMatter activists protest, in your view, the wrong candidate, at the wrong time, in the wrong space.
I have seen far too many fragile white progressives exclaim, “You’ve lost an ally to your cause!”
First, allyship is not an identity that can be self-declared. Being an ally is a process. And it can be a grueling and unpleasant process, especially for those who have never had to wrestle with decentering whiteness and centering Blackness instead.
Second, if you are truly a white ally, you recognize that #BlackLivesMatter isn’t “our” cause. It’s a cause for social justice. It’s your cause too. And if you believe that threatening to retract your support is a viable threat, know this: It is not. It is actually a relief because when push comes to shove, Black people need white allies who will be in the trenches with us, not fair-weather audience participants.
I understand that this may be hard for some of you to read. You may be angry at me. You may feel diminished because you are likely accustomed to the warm blanket of whiteness in progressive spaces, and are resistant to centering Black lives and Black issues. Some of you have never been told that your opinion doesn’t matter. And your initial reaction may be outrage or to think that I’m racist or that I hate white people.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Besides, the issue is not whether I or any #BlackLivesMatter activist or supporter hates white people. The issue, as Seattle protester and activist Marissa Johnson so succinctly put it in her radio interview with This Week in Blackness Prime, is whether or not you love Black people and are personally accountable to Black people.
Loving Black people is different than not hating Black people. Loving Black people is different than not standing in opposition to Black people. Loving Black people is different than tolerating Black people. If you love Black people and you, as a non-Black progressive, believe that #BlackLivesMatter is your cause, then fight with us. If you don’t or you’re not sure, then we will fight on without you. But believe me: The fight will continue. The disruptions will continue. The demands for recognition that our lives matter will continue.
By all indications, Bernie Sanders recognizes that our community is in crisis.
You should follow his lead.