Protest is a movement, and it has to be judged as a movement. Like it or not, perfectly executed or not, the Black Lives Matter protesters have directly influenced a shift in platform and in personnel within the campaigns of both Seantor Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Yes, protesters who may or may not have been part of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign stormed Sanders’ stage in Seattle on August 1st. This was less well-received than a similar incident where BLM protesters occupied a Netroots Nation conference in front of Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The protesters in Seattle were more confrontational with the crowd, and seemed to have a less specific message to get out. To criticize that is to assume their purpose was to deliver a message. It ignores the context of protest and replaces the protesters’ goals with our own. What are our own goals? To be pleased with their message without having our day disrupted. That makes us a bit of an ass.
You’re a Racist
As Avenue Q once reminded us, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
We tend not to judge other protest movements so harshly. Greenpeace has been a complete disaster for years, especially when operating in other countries. The Occupy movement regularly releases false propaganda as official statements, refuses to work in conjunction with many protest groups that focus on local or culturally specific movements, and has trended steadily toward anarchism.
Yet it’s BLM we’ll single out right now for an incident that pales in comparison to the missteps of less culturally-specific groups. Why should we expect BLM to be polite in a way we don’t expect of other protest groups? What about BLM specifically makes us think that we should tell them to behave themselves when other protest groups regularly get away with much worse and we barely blink?
You’re Ignoring the Real Goal
The BLM protesters who ousted Sanders from his speaking spot this weekend didn’t execute a very effective plan in terms of communicating their message to the crowd that was present. But why should they? That would only service the crowd themselves. There’s a bigger game with Sanders. If the goal is to force changes in his platform and his campaign, then what the crowd thinks is immaterial. If the goal is to keep Sanders from the stage, and not to please the crowd, then they were more successful than anyone would have expected. In fact, this was the most successful protest at any political speech or rally this year: Sanders never spoke.
Why would you expect that the protesters’ goal should be a cathartic performance of racial communication to a Seattle crowd? Why should you expect BLM to invent a teachable moment to make you feel warm about their action? This wasn’t public outreach, it was very public disruption.
If Sanders’ campaign is component to a movement that will force change in the primaries, and that’s component to a movement that will force changes in the general election, then Sanders’ campaign is the most effective inlet for BLM to change the conversation to incorporate not just discussion of racial issues, but actual agendas to address them.
The goal was disruption and interruption. It was not to make the crowd feel good.
Policies of Help vs. Agendas of Action
Yes, Sanders is one of the two major party nominees who would seemingly do the most to level the playing field between people of color and whites. (One of two? Yes, let’s not pretend as if Clinton doesn’t have many moments of protest, radical action, and legislation beneficial to black communities herself.)
So why protest Sanders if he’s one of the best options for black voters? His policies, after all, focus on correcting the economics that create stark racial and education divides in our country. Yet BLM doesn’t just want helpful policies, they want an active agenda.
One helps, the other aggressively changes. As Patrisse Cullors, BLM co-founder, told the audience at the Netroots Nation conference, “Your ‘progressive’ is not enough. We need more.”
She’s right. Sanders supporters have fought to redefine their candidate as mainstream rather than fringe. They’re right, too. Sanders may be the most radical candidate in either primary, but he’s not radical enough for what BLM wants and what many voters of color would like to see. Civil rights protest has a long history of standing up for complete justice, and not merely the best they can get at a given moment. Let’s not pretend as if they don’t know what they’re doing better than the armchair quarterbacks.
The notion that BLM shouldn’t protest Sanders because he’s outspoken about racial politics doesn’t ring true. Neither Sanders nor Clinton are particularly outspoken about racial issues, especially in regards to how central they’ve been in the national eye.
They both have a good history on civil rights issues, but it’s not as if either has made direct race issues a primary focus in their legislative careers. A good history is laudable, but it makes an ally, not a fighter for a cause.
The notion that BLM should only protest in ways that a wing of the party judges as respectful is ludicrous. We face a party primary that offers zero candidates of color. Sanders isn’t BLM’s candidate. Clinton isn’t either. That makes it BLM’s job as a protest movement to force one or both further to their side. And no, that will not play to onlooking crowds, nor should it.
Your Happiness is Counter-Productive
Protest movements are not designed to make everyone happy. If the goal is to force Democrats to make changes, BLM is seeing a huge impact – they’ve forced changes in the campaigns of Clinton, Sanders, and Gov. Martin O’Malley. How? Through communication, yes, but let’s be real. Changes are coming about because of the threat of further disruption.
We act as if civil disruption somehow isn’t the most effective form of protest in the last century. Please remember that it is, and nobody who has their day or political rally or even a TV show interrupted feels good about it at the time. But they are forced to acknowledge it, react to it, and they are forced to face the potential consequences of more disruption, and that either makes them open up and incorporate a greater message or pull back and guard themselves even more. Both are reactions that a protest movement seeks to elicit because staying the course when the course is deemed “not good enough” or “best we’re going to get” is not a function of a protest movement. If it were, it wouldn’t be protest.
Gabriel Valdez has been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American arts criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association, and earned recognition by the National Newspaper Association. You can read more of his writing on Movies Change You andArticle Cats