When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters once again Saturday, this time at a Seattle rally, there were many calls for apologies. But here's what else happened this weekend — protesters in Ferguson commemorated the first anniversary of Michael Brown's death, and police shot and critically wounded Tyrone Harris Jr., a young black man who was subsequently charged for assault for allegedly firing shots at officers. Oh, "Darren Wilson Day" also trended on Twitter. And yet, here we are with many self-proclaimed liberals who would much rather discuss BLM protesters' tactics in Seattle than explore and understand the necessity of the movement.
I have written about Sanders' relationship with the BLM movement on multiple occasions, and I think — before anything else — we must examine the visible impact that BLM actions have had on Sanders' campaign. Following Netroots Nation, Sanders explicitly began to say that #BlackLivesMatter, speaking out on the death of Sandra Bland while in police custody and the perpetuation of institutional racism by police brutality and mass incarceration. And just after the Seattle rally, Sanders' campaign finally rolled out a distinct platform on racial justice, "addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal, and economic."
Instead of widespread recognition of how much BLM achieved by pushing Sanders on the issue of racial justice, there has instead been fury and criticism — don't the protesters know how much Sanders has worked on civil rights issues, don't they know he will fight for people of color, don't they know he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.? Well guess what — they do know these things, and that is precisely why they continue to push him. To respond to a popular white liberal claim that "this is politics" and that Sanders has to appeal to the majority if he wants to have any chance of winning the Democratic nomination, Sanders has never been a moderate and he has no hope of pretending to be one now. He knows this, which is why he started to navigate the language of racial justice. Besides, hidden in that argument is the notion that fighting for people of color somehow isn't appealing to all liberals; what does that say about the American left?
Out of last year's turbulent protests in Ferguson, when a grand jury failed to indict the white police officer who had killed Brown, criticisms emerged of the rioting and looting taking place in the city. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates astutely points out in The Atlantic, an obsession with preaching nonviolence and appropriating King's radical messaging reveals the deeply-ingrained nature of state-sponsored violence against people of color.
Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who "bulk up" to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.
This is precisely what the BLM movement speaks to. And this is why BLM activists must unapologetically demand change. They do not owe the institution of white supremacy an apology for looting or interrupting Democratic politicians when they have been facing structural violence for as long as they can remember. It does not matter the action at Sanders' Seattle rally might not have been officially sanctioned BLM actions, or that one of the organizers was supposedly a Sarah Palin supporter at one time, or that Sanders is working hard to fight for both racial and economic justice. It is not for me, as a non-black woman of color and ally to the BLM movement, to criticize the protesters' tactics. That criticism, if necessary, must come from #BlackLivesMatter activists themselves. I have not been on the ground organizing, I have not been living with the same kind of fear, and I therefore will not tell black women to apologize for seizing the stage from a white male presidential candidate.
There have been conspiracy theories circulating that the two women who interrupted Sanders were planted there by Hillary Clinton's campaign or by conservatives. It alarms me that once again, a predominantly white liberal crowd booed women of color and the public sphere continues to attempt a derailment of their movement. This happened when Jennicet Gutiérrez spoke up at the White House Pride Reception, when BLM activists held an action during a presidential town hall at Netroots Nation, and it keeps happening. Why is a movement no longer seen as entirely credible when people of color are anything but respectful, peaceful, and appeasing to white folks?
Black and brown people are dying. We are in a state of emergency — not the same "state of emergency" declared in Ferguson Monday, but a state of emergency in which people of color have to live in constant fear of systemic oppression and violence. It should be far more important to focus on that than spend time criticizing the organizational tactics of protestors. To spend time lamenting the "alienation of white allies" is to misunderstand what BLM activists have been trying to do. If Sanders is the best possible choice for people of color — as he is certainly trying to be — it makes a great deal of sense to mobilize at his rallies than at those of Republicans because he is actually likely to listen, and civil rights is one of his self-proclaimed priorities.
After everything went down in Seattle, Washington State Sen. Pramila Jayapal offered a valuable, nuanced perspective on the action. She explained that she, like anyone else, cannot objectively decide what would have been the "right" thing to do. She also recognized the importance of having intersectional movements, that understand and embrace different types of actions and reactions.
Here's what I am trying to deeply think about: How do we call people in even as we call them out? As a brown woman, the only woman of color in the State Senate, often the only person of color in many rooms, I am constantly thinking about this. ... But in the end, if we want to win for ALL of us on racial, economic, and social justice issues, we need multiple sets of tactics, working together. Some are disruptive tactics. Some are loving tactics. Some are truth-telling tactics. Some can only be taken on by white people. Some can only be taken on by people of color. Sometimes we need someone from the other strand to step in and hold us up. Other times, we have to step out and hold them up. Each of us has a different role to play but we all have to hold the collective space for movement building together.
Let me say it again. Interruptions are not more important than black lives. Property damage is not more important than black lives. When we consider the crowd at Sanders' rally was a primarily white space, when we consider the crowd of supposed liberals shouted down a request for a moment of silence for Michael Brown in favor of bringing Sanders back on stage, we must reassess our priorities. There is no singularly correct way to organize or be an ally, and understanding this, while simultaneously appreciating how much passion and work people have put into this and other movements, would go a long way toward genuine solidarity.