#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie Sanders, and Democratic Tactics

Tactical debates are some of the most unpleasant and yet most important aspects of trying to commit for positive social change. People involved in them are discussing the hard work of other people with similar commitments. Coalitions can be tested, and suspicions can flare. The radical fringe can snootily dismiss anything but the most extreme tactics as compromise; those who lean more centrist can in turn snootily imply anyone with problems of conviction with certain tactics as being politically naïve and committed to staying in the ivory tower.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of #BlackLivesMatter’s recent hijacking of a Bernie Sanders rally on Saturday the 8th in Seattle has been that the debate about tactics for a better society became one that a lot of people in the mainstream became involved in. The activists used the opportunity of Michael Brown’s death on August 9th of last year to confront Sanders on what they viewed as a position that has had relative paucity on specific matters of race.

#BlackLivesMatter has been a fantastically successful organization. They have rightly pushed forward the causes of racial inequality and have created almost unprecedented awareness about issues like white privilege and police brutality. If we’re lucky, they’ll continue to do great work. And sometimes, organizations like #BlackLivesMatter have to go a little far to challenge people’s sensitivities.

Still, when I heard of this action, I called it a “travesty”. And even with some of the wonderful responses from the Bernie camp that have been elicited, I still find myself massively uncomfortable with this action.

Don’t get me wrong: #BlackLivesMatter’s assertion that white progressives and liberals too often soft-pedal race is well-taken. Even as I was becoming a bona fide anarchist, I still tended to downplay the role of race as compared to class, viewing the specific causes of racial inequality today as being largely the results of previous generations of racism combined with current trends in classism. I can see the trend they’re talking about. And, for some white progressives, their views becoming broader and more in line with complementary holism doesn’t just come about after being presented with the compelling data of the ongoing salience of race (and gender and sexual orientation and political power) in American life above and beyond class.

But momentarily getting a blip of consciousness is not going to cut it. Even getting a Presidential candidate to discuss race more specifically isn’t worth potentially causing the scuttling of an organization and in-fighting.

I think the reason why #BlackLivesMatter may have taken the tack that they did was that they viewed Sanders as being just like any other Democratic politician feigning progressivism early on to build cred.

But Sanders just isn’t that. My Facebook wall is blowing up with people sharing Sanders’ posts. Millennials love him. Here’s a candidate that isn’t calling them lazy narcissists but is laying down, clearly and repeatedly, the basic facts about inequality and corporate domination in the U.S.

From the standards of anyone on the Left, Sanders’ statements are at best “No duhs”. But from the perspective of people who haven’t heard anything like it, Sanders is something objectively new.

I haven’t had this much hope for a Democratic candidate who could actually win and might make good changes since Obama. And Sanders’ campaign so far is blowing Obama’s out of the water in terms of consistent discussion of inequality on all levels: Unemployment and job training, tax rates, the post-Citizens United ability of corporations to truly hijack the political system…

Plenty of people, white and black, male and female, have become galvanized for Bernie. This is something new.

I think that #BLM didn’t understand this need, and in so doing I think they made a number of errors. And even if their specific action ultimately may do more good than harm, I am very scared about what it shows about the movement and what may happen in terms of coalition-building and alliances.

First: Poor people deserve a safe space too, as poor people qua poor people.

Bernie Sanders’ rallies have become a place for people to hear that their struggles are systemic, to be freed of guilt.

#BLM showed disrespect for that. I suspect they would be livid if gay protesters hijacked their rally.

We always have to be very careful when we penetrate the space that is being created by people to talk about something that we admit is perfectly valid and indeed essential.

Second: #BLM’s action is undemocratic in its norms.

When a group of people show up to a place, investing their time and effort to support someone, it is deeply unfair to prevent them from being able to talk about what they wish to talk about.

This is obviously a complicated matter. But I’m trying to think of other situations where resistance has perhaps skirted around democratic norms and I can’t think of many. The recent white supremacist protest where a person satirized them by playing a sousaphone the whole time undermined them while letting them speak. The civil rights movement in general emphasized passive resistance: At best, they caused inconvenience and disruption, not actually preventing people from speaking.

After all, now that #BLM has done this, what maxim can they use to defend a white supremacist or a Sanders supporter taking over one of their rallies?

The means that you use to achieve an end influence that end. Organizations historically have struggled to act in ways that are undemocratic or coercive and maintain their integrity. A better society has to be won by the kinds of actions that would be natural in that better society. And I would hope that a good society would never have a person silenced by others with another agenda.

Third: #BLM has unfortunately for many reinforced the idea that class and race may indeed be opposed objectives. And for many, they want to see class inequality ended.

I despise the idea of “oppression Olympics”. I do not believe in sacrificing progress in one area over any other. I will always reject such false dichotomies. Justice is justice is justice.

But one can make a very reasonable argument that, of the inequalities that we face, class is the one that has gotten worse in the most dramatic way and has been least-well challenged. In the 20th century, we saw revolutionary wins for women, people of color, and recently LGBTQ people. There were transforming changes in institutions: The right to vote, the practical ability to enter the workforce, the end of legal marital rape, the end of Jim Crow, and legalized gay marriage. While racism, sexism, and homophobia and heteornormativity are not gone as institutions, certainly they have been sharply mitigated. But, as regards class, we have seen virtually nothing that can be viewed as a revolutionary change. Corporations still retain the power that they always have had. Workers remain roughly as helpless as they ever have been. And, since the 1970s,

It is not a winning strategy to make people believe that they have to make a choice between race and class. And while #BLM did not explicitly or implicitly do this in their message, their action, bereft of broader context, said to many people, “I’m being asked to choose between supporting Bernie or #BLM”.

This is a loss for both movements. It’s a loss of opportunity to discuss. Luckily, on spaces like Tim Wise’s Facebook page, there have been smart, coalition-building discussions and debates. But I truly fear that, for the next year, I am going to have to do more work now when I introduce anything having to do with #BLM.

Fourth, and this one is tough: A lot of people view black activists, as they view gay or female activists, as irrational or entitled or misinformed or aggressive or ideological.

So much of my activist work day to day is engaging with people and trying to get them to see that it does not make one automatically irrational (an “SJW” or an ideologue) to assert that discrimination against women qua women or people of color qua people of color is real and substantial enough to assert “privilege” for men or white people.

Yes, #BLM can’t be held accountable for bad stereotypes. But actions like this can make them seem remarkably petty and entitled. Sanders’ response makes him seem to many that he is just clarifying something obvious. It seems to many that #BLM forced an issue, undemocratically, that Sanders obviously agrees with, and that #BLM attacked the person closest to their viewpoint who can possibly win.

As activists, we must all unfortunately swallow our anger and frustration at bigotry and injustice quite often in order to bring people on board. We have to communicate to people who have not had the opportunity to be informed and enlightened on these matters. As tough as it is, when we fail to do this we fail as activists.

Fifth: I think #BLM is showing some degree of ideological myopia.

Supposedly, some of the controversy came about because Sanders said “Black lives matter, white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter”. I understand why #BLM took exception with this, but this is in fact the only just formulation.

We want a society where all lives matter equally. #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan is so powerful because it challenges people to recognize that black lives so often are treated like they aren’t. Obviously, this is also true of Hispanics, who are routinely demonized. Sanders’ quote here is perfectly consistent with an idealistic platform. Sanders’ statement in response, “I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me”, is also perfectly on point.

Compare this to some of Obama’s statements, where he actually declared that this is a black and a white and a Hispanic America. Not a single #BLM supporter I’ve spoken to has quoted a single line from Bernie that rhetorically obliterates the racial and gender inequalities being faced. He hasn’t talked about that issue, but there are a host of issues that Sanders hasn’t brought up that matter hugely and tremendously. Unfortunately, when you’re building a coalition, sometimes you need to stay on a single message.

I see in this action a belief that racial inequality is so obviously the leading issue, so obviously the most pernicious, that anyone who disagrees otherwise or wants to spend their time focusing on another issue must be silenced. I get very worried when I see that logic, implicitly or explicitly.

If we were able to improve the class inequality situation in the United States, that would help many poor people of color and many communities of color.

Now, I will say that I have seen many reactions from Sanders’ supporters that are grotesque and deeply unfortunate. Many were unable to put aside anger to try to in turn forgive and build coalitions themselves. Many repeated mythologies about inequality that are deeply toxic and problematic.

But this is the door I fear that #BLM opened. Instead of getting an opportunity to raise the consciousness and allow Sanders to speak through something like an open letter or a question at his rally, they forced their issue into the limelight over another issue. I think many will find that an unforgivable action. When people are angry, their better angels rarely rise to the surface.

In any instance, #BLM did what they did. Now, it’s up to left coalitions to push forward a clear and deep understanding of how totally interlinked race and class are, how the two systems of oppression crucially depend on each other and how efforts against one rob the other of power.


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