THE DISRUPTION of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ speech at a rally to defend Social Security in Seattle on August 8 by two leading Black Lives Matter activists raises a number of questions that can only be understood by grappling with the circumstances unique to U.S. politics today:
— Black lives under attack: As we mark the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, the Guardian‘s “The Counted” series demonstrates that the epidemic of racist police killings has actually increased since the Baltimore rebellion. This overt, street-level brutality is buttressed by a bipartisan doubling down on the institutional framework of the New Jim Crow: housing, employment, and educational segregation, along with mass incarceration.
— Recovery for the 1 Percent, and pain for 99 Percent: The majority of families in the U.S. are worse off than they were before the Great Recession. Even as the stock market hit new heights and corporate profits skyrocketed, real median household income (for workers of all racial groups) fell by 4.6 percent since the beginning of 2008–and unemployment and underemployment rob millions of families of their basic needs.
— A crisis of working-class and social movements and organizations: Unions continue to shrink, down to 11.1 percent of all workers and just 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector in 2014, and strike levels remain at historical lows. And from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, any significant mobilization in the streets has been attacked by a militarized police force, running roughshod over our constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
— Scary Republicans and Hillary Clinton: As the Republican Party wallows in its own filth, Democratic Party frontrunner Hillary Clinton is calculating just how much of a populist façade she needs to obscure her 35-year legacy of promoting austerity, militarism and prison-building, without alienating her backers in the billionaires club.
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IN THE midst of these tough times, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Sanders presidential campaign are two expressions of disgust and anger against this depressing scenario. So why did they clash in Seattle?
In just the last month, more than 100,000 people attended rallies for Sanders, and many more will no doubt do so in the coming months.
The majority of the crowds are ordinary working-class people responding to Sanders’ basic message: tax the rich, raise wages, defend unions, and make education, housing and health as human rights. Sanders is a socialist who says Wall Street is to blame for the crisis. In addition to the masses of volunteers, his fundraising from small contributions and a surge in poll numbers, Sanders just picked up his first major union endorsement, from National Nurses United.
But Sanders has significant weaknesses, as well. Until recently, he avoided taking a clear stand on the questions of police brutality and the New Jim Crow. His past record is mixed–for example, he supported the 1994 Clinton Omnibus Crime Bill. (Of course, this makes him no different from the vast majority of leading Democrats, including his opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton).
Thus, Sanders was left open to criticism from Black Lives Matter activists that he was dodging the specificity of racial oppression, relegating it to an afterthought of his economic populism. He has been rightly challenged on this front in numerous articles, and more famously at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in July.
Yet as it turned out, it was relatively easy for Sanders to accommodate the demands made on him at Netroots. His campaign website now includes a racial justice section, largely based on extensive remarks he delivered to a National Urban League gathering on July 31, a week before the Seattle protest.
This raises a strategic dilemma for those who disrupted the Seattle event. In a press release issued by BLM activists immediately after, they wrote, “Presidential candidates will not win Black votes without putting out an explicit criminal justice reform package.” Now that the candidate has delivered, does that mean Sanders disrupters will become supporters? If not, what is their alternative in 2016?
This gets to a deeper problem with Sanders’ campaign: He is a self-identified independent and socialist, but he is running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, one of the two corporate parties responsible for the New Jim Crow in the first place. Sanders has committed himself to supporting the eventual winner of the primaries, which most likely means supporting Hillary Clinton. Rather than helping free unions, students and social movements from allegiance to the two-party system, as his independent label would imply, Sanders is rallying energy within it.
However, neither the Netroots nor the Seattle disruptions attempted to take on this core political challenge.
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ASIDE FROM this question, there is the problem of the strategy and tactics of building a movement, which must learn how to relate the fight against racism to that against economic inequality.
If Sanders was wrong to denigrate the former, then the BLM action in Seattle seemed designed to diminish the latter. After all, the rally where Sanders was speaking was organized not as a campaign event, but to defend Social Security–the most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. history.
Far from ignoring questions of racial oppression, the event featured speakers like socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, Seattle King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson (who wore a BLM T-shirt and stressed the importance of Social Security for African Americans), and Marcelas Owens, an African American student activist from Seattle’s historic Garfield High School.
The BLM action in Seattle has been met by a racist backlash, including some Sanders supporters, accusing the activists of being everything from FBI agents to secret Hillary Clinton operatives. And some in the crowd in Seattle did react with hostility and even demands that the two activists be arrested.
In the face of this abuse, NAACP President Hankerson both expressed his frustration with the rally organizers’ efforts being derailed, while defending the activists’ right to conduct their protest. “We worked on this for a while, and not having Bernie Sanders able to speak, obviously…I’m disappointed for [the organizers] that he lost that ability to do that,” Hankerson said. “But ultimately, the message here is that these young ladies want to be heard, and who am I to say they can’t be heard?”
However, it also must be said that, in a very confusing situation, the organizers on the platform offered the activists the chance to speak (they were on stage for more than 20 minutes).
While most in the crowd could not have known what was going on or who the disrupters were at first, the BLM activists seem to have assumed that all those who took off lunch to attend the rally were part of the problem. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist Seattle is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me,” says one (5:50 mark in the video of the event).
It seems clear that the intention of the action was not to win over the crowd, but to shut down the event–which, again, was not even a Bernie Sanders campaign event, but a rally to defend Social Security.
I believe this was a mistake. Politics is about challenging and changing people’s ideas, about demonstrating the connections between the specific constellation of oppression and exploitation they suffer, with a strategy to mobilize, organize and create a political movement.
As author and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor commented on social media:
We can argue and debate this without constantly questioning the motives of people in the movement–are you a shill for the Democrats or an ultra-left sectarian who doesn’t “get” how politics work in this country. Neither of these formulations are particularly helpful. The question of the election is enormous and raises even bigger questions. We can’t evade them, we have to take them on.
In the coming year, one of the priorities for socialists and all those who care about building a political movement capable of fighting on multiple fronts will be how to build up the organized forces of the BLM movement, while working to develop a relationship with Sanders supporters who back him for all the right reasons, yet remained trapped in a party which is committed to all the wrong answers.