The Real Lesson of Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter


Last month, a bunch of progressive activists focused on an urgent social justice issue targeted an extremely left-leaning senator who had just ignored their issue in a big speech — a speech that focused on finance, big banks, and economic justice.

That group represented abortion rights, and the senator they targeted was Elizabeth Warren. “When you stand up in front of progressives and detail all of the ways that progressive values are mainstream American values and fail to include abortion, you are reinforcing the white male dominance that still holds power,” they wrote in an open letter. “We activists and advocates are not here to get out your votes… then keep applauding as you lay out a broader agenda without us.” A few weeks later, Warren’s incredibly impassioned speech in defense of Planned Parenthood went viral, and she ended up as the strongest pro-choice voice on the contentious issue.

Calling her out seems, for the time being, to have worked.

At the same conference, Black Lives Matter activists targeted another — arguably the other — left-leaning senator, whose focus on the big banks and economic injustice didn’t fully encompass their issue. That senator is Bernie Sanders, also running for president on an “insurgent” platform. A second Black Lives Matter protest at a rally where he spoke this past the weekend — before another series of record-breaking rallies in the Pacific Northwest — has brought a major progressive schism to the forefront, turning a intra-movement conflict into a big media moment.

There are many secondary issues feeding the fires, including conspiracy theories about protesters being “plants” and personal animosity between major leftist figures on Twitter, but let’s move beyond that to look at the major fault lines in the debate. On the one hand, many establishment folks and “radical” white progressives alike are eager to scold these activists for daring to interrupt the one candidate who can actually help them. See Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker post, “Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend,” for an example of this. See comments sections on almost every single blog post discussing the topic for more examples. “Pick on the Republicans!” the cry goes. “They’re the ones who really hate the cause.” Or: “This isn’t strategic.”

At first glance, it’s very understandable that they feel this way. It breaks any progressive’s heart to see people whose causes are both great compete with each other for airtime, as if there’s not enough room for both. As Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal wrote after the rally: “Enormous amounts of work went into yesterday’s event and it was so important to talk about preserving and expanding Social Security and Medicare. None of the papers today are covering those issues, because they were eclipsed by what happened. That’s not necessarily ‘wrong’ — it just is what it is.” Yet Jayapal didn’t chide protesters. In fact, she still felt that they presented an opportunity for Sanders to step up to the plate on racial justice. He may not have grasped their message 100%, but his awareness might well be evolving:

[A]fter the protesters were able to get the mic and say their piece and have the 4.5 minutes of silence for all the black people who have been killed, I would have loved for Bernie Sanders to take the mic and respond. And also to speak about Social Security and Medicare too… I believe Bernie Sanders is growing too — and I hope (and yes, believe) that we’ll look back on this and see his emergence as a leader who brings our movements for economic, racial and social justice together in a powerful way.

That hope is the crux of the protests. It’s a mistake to consider the strategy of protests as purely being about making the protest movement look “nice” or “respectable” — protest movements aren’t running for office. They’re trying to force officials or candidates to pay attention to their issues.

As for whom to target, protesting the Republicans would not necessarily be a better strategy for Black Lives Matter activists. Why? We saw on Thursday how Trump and co. reacted to social issues — with unapologetic reactionary fury. Going after these dudes would not accomplish much for “the movement,” besides the satisfaction of being gadflies to a cohort of jerks. Think about it: if Trump or Huckabee or Chris Christie kicked out the protesters or even got them arrested, their base would love it and progressives would continue to hate the people they already hate.

But the images of senators like Warren and especially candidates like Sanders, who have made their reputations by positioning themselves as outsiders fighting the establishment, are more vulnerable — and the protesters understand that. Black Lives Matter activists aren’t trying to take down or bury Sanders, but instead confronting him with their demand: take our concern into the nationally televised debates you’ll be attending, make it a part of your platform, and maybe take it all the way to the DNC’s big convention platform, too. Make this issue central. Make people talk about it.

In fact, Sanders is already clearly trying hard to catch up, at least in superficial ways, to activists’ demands. And activists wisely sense that, as this important Facebook post from Dominique Hazzard shows:

Bernie Sanders might get embarrassed. Bernie Sanders might huddle with his aides afterwards and say “shit what do we need to do to get this right?” Bernie Sanders might release a Racial Justice platform the next day. He might hire some black people to his campaign. He might start reaching out to black organizers and listen to their voices. He might learn some shit. By golly, he might even take his new knowledge back to the Senate with him. The possibilities are endless. Right now Bernie Sanders, A SENATOR, is within young black organizers’ sphere of influence in a way he never has been before and will probably never be again. He is vulnerable to our demands. As someone who will be debating Hillary Clinton and can push her on positions, he can give us something. Folks are taking advantage of that. I call that strategic.

Indeed, she notes that Sanders has made at least some strides. So if Sanders, at least on a basic level, “gets it” (or is hustling to do so), why don’t his supporters do the same? Why are they freaking out online and yelling at racial justice protesters for being rude? Well, part of it is good, old-fashioned white progressive racial condescension, racism — and part of it is typical establishment liberal animus towards the disruptive protest tactics that actually formed the basis of modern progressivism.

Yet another part of it is a fundamental failure to grasp the endgame of the tactics being used. As Jamil Smith writes at The New Republic:

The problem isn’t so much him as it is his supporters, cursing protesters and later, on social media, touting their guy’s record whenever they are challenged on his (heretofore) lack of a platform regarding structural racism. They continue to misunderstand the primary goals of the #BlackLivesMatter protest actions, as have been clearly stated: Firm policy proposals, not rhetoric. Black voters have moved past “hope and change.”

That “hope and change” line seems key to me. Indeed, in the last major election, the “We like this candidate, let him/her take care of our problems” idea got its fullest expression. Progressives and people of color supported Obama, while many feminists threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton. The big idea in the 2008 election was that, one way or another, a visionary figure was going to come in and solve things. In particular, Obama’s “movement”-type campaign inspired an entire generation in the basics and mechanics of activism. Now that generation is using it to transcend the candidate-as-savior model and focus on (literal, it can’t be said enough) life-or-death issues.

In their own ways, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and even what looks like a fledgling radical reproductive rights movement are all products of a post-Obama 2008 era — a renewed understanding that politicians, no matter how many stadiums they fill or how awesome they seem, are only as great as the issues they bring to the table.

Furthermore, what Sanders’ supporters and critics of the protesters are missing is this: the easiest way for this not to be an intra-movement conflict that breaks hearts and tears up alliances is for Team Sanders to join in with Black Lives Matter, amplify protester’s voices, and make ending state violence a tentpole issue, using it to crash the gates of traditional Democratic Party politics. Period. As one progressive blogger wrote in his (sensible) explainer about the dustup, “Imagine if Bernie worked WITH Black Lives Matter. Imagine if he made dismantling white privilege a major plank of his campaign.” Indeed, imagine that. Then we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?