Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bernie Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter and what happened in Seattle.

Dusting off this blog to address some stuff that happened yesterday in Seattle, because it's important that everyone understand the dynamics at play here.

First off, let's start with what actually happened. The Washington Post has a solid writeup:

Sanders was the final speaker on a long program held at a city park. Shortly after he took stage, a small group of protesters from a Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter took the microphone and demanded that the crowd hold Sanders “accountable” for not doing enough, in their view, to address police brutality and other issues on the group’s agenda.

After sharing a few local grievances with the crowd, including school disparities and gentrification in Seattle, the protesters asked for a period of silence to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown being shot and killed during a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Event organizers allowed the period of silence, as some in the large crowd booed and shouted for the protesters to leave the stage. Afterward, Marissa Janae Johnson, who identified herself as a leader of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Seattle, asked the crowd to “join us now in holding Bernie Sanders accountable for his actions.” She motioned for Sanders to join her at the microphone.

After several minutes of frantic conversations, Sanders left the stage and greeted people in the large crowd who had turned out to see him. Many chanted his name.

In the hours that followed, several activists took to social media to question whether Johnson was speaking for the broader Black Lives Movement.

This isn't the first time this has happened, but we need to dig deeper to see what exactly is going on. Specifically, we need to see who the protesters in both cases were really speaking for, and we need to understand why they were called to do it, and Bernie supporters need to know what to do about it.

Bernie Sanders cut his political teeth fighting for civil rights, marching with Dr. King and organizing sit-ins for racial equality in his home state of Vermont, and he hasn't stopped agitating for equality in office. However, he is from Vermont... one of the whitest states in the Union. He's never run for national office before, and has little name recognition among people of color. He used to have little name recognition among college-educated whites and progressive Democrats, but when that changed, those groups became his base. As a result, thanks to that and to a home-state advantage he has a clear shot at winning New Hampshire and he's in the running in Iowa, the first two primary states and also overwhelmingly white. Hillary probably realizes at this point that she's not going to get the coronation that she wanted; Bernie will probably win at least one of those states and stay in the running for a while.

However, she has a firewall, starting in South Carolina, the third primary state. Bernie's low name recognition among PoC means that right now, they're overwhelmingly supporting Hillary. There aren't a whole lot of great reasons for this. She voted to send a lot of people to their deaths in Iraq, she did nothing when her husband executed a mentally-disabled black man for the sake of political expediency and when he changed the welfare system to systemically disadvantage blacks, she used racist dogwhistle tactics in her primary with Obama, she repeated the "All Lives Matter" crap. But despite all that, she's the best-known Democrat and probably better on black issues than any of the clowns on the Republican side. But she's not as good as Bernie, and once voters of color realize they have a real choice, they are likely to desert her like college-educated whites and progressives have... unless their introduction to Bernie is a hostile one.

Enter the protesters that disrupted the Netroots Nation conference and the Seattle speech. Naturally, black lives do matter, and Bernie's lack of focus on these issues, though borne of ignorance rather than malice, was a problem that I'm glad has been corrected. He's hired a #BlackLivesMatter activist as his national press secretary, and released a manifesto on racial justice that's stronger and more detailed than any other candidate's.

But these protests weren't about black lives or their worth. They were about Hillary Clinton cynically using black people once again to further her own ends, and a hardcore militant faction in #BlackLivesMatter willing to be a pawn of Hillary, and therefore Wall Street, to get their message out.

First off, the group in particular that interrupted the Netroots Nation conference was not #BlackLivesMatter but the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. They just got a grant from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which was set up by Hillary Clinton ally Whitney Williams. They got a lady named Tia Oso, who steals from charities, to carry out the disruptions there.

Once again, the criminal Clinton patronage networks strike. This is also why literally the only other candidate targeted by these protesters so far has been Martin O'Malley, and that only because he happened to be in the room with Bernie. If these groups truly cared about "holding politicians accountable" you think they'd have disrupted the Republican debate or a Hillary group, but nope. Their real concern isn't ensuring that candidates support #BlackLivesMatter, but in ensuring the coronation nomination of Hillary.

As for Outside Agitators 206, the guys that shut down the Sanders speech in Seattle, a look at their website shows them to be hardcore anarchist militants, who linked approvingly to an article denouncing just about every black civil rights group out there. These guys didn't need to be bought by Clinton, or if they were she hid her patronage a little better this time. They ate up the Netroots Nation action like it was real, and mobilized on their own. This is almost certainly what Hillary was aiming for - get the ball rolling with the Netroots Nation protest, and then the radicals will keep it going for their own purposes.

What would those purposes be? Black nationalism is a minority viewpoint in black America; historian C. Vann Woodward placed it at around 11% popularity in the 60s in his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow. If MLK Jr. and mainstream black America's response to white supremacy was organization and agitation for equality, black nationalism's response to white supremacy was to return hatred for hatred. It's an understandable response; you can't really blame someone suffering from intense oppression for defending themselves, to shoot back, to dehumanize all white people the way you've been dehumanized by white people.

There are upsides to this approach. Hatred can mobilize people, at least in the short term: look at the varied successes of the Tea Party, which is basically black nationalism for white people. And certainly, part of the reason that white America came to terms with MLK Jr. is because they preferred his civil disobedience over Malcolm X's civil insurrection. Malcolm X's extremism made MLK Jr's civil disobedience look moderate by comparison, and the choice for white America was then made much easier.

But the problem with hatred is that it can't be contained. Whatever box you think you've stuck it in, it will corrode the lining and seep out into everything else. Sooner or later, you're not just asserting your constitutional rights in the California statehouse or monitoring racist cops, you're picking apart your allies because they come from Vermont and don't have an innate understanding of every aspect of your struggle. The insidiousness of hatred is why prominent activists have insisted upon the importance of fighting systems, not people. The realization of this profound truth is probably why black nationalism has remained a minor movement within the broader civil rights movement.

However, anyone with a viewpoint wants to expound it any chance they get, and Hillary's dirty tricks at Netroots Nation has given the black nationalists that opportunity. They see a chance to take down the structure of the mainstream civil rights movement and replace it with their own, and all they have to do is throw an old white guy with a history of civil rights advocacy under the bus. They jumped on that chance in Seattle, they denounced all his supporters as white supremacists, and I wouldn't be surprised if they jump on it again, Bernie's outreach to #BlackLivesMatter be damned.

How should Bernie supporters respond to this, though? Ultimately there is a difference between black nationalism and white supremacy: white supremacy has the force of the state behind it. Black nationalists need that to build grievance and hatred; white supremacy is the oxygen they breathe. White Bernie supporters punching down at them would not be defending ourselves, but adding to their list of grievances and, ultimately, their supporters.

It's tempting, sure. What happened in Seattle offended me profoundly, and it would have been viscerally satisfying to me to see someone stand up to the protesters, but it would have been self-defeating. Hillary would have her soundbite in the media about Bernie's problems with people of color, and it would have made it that much harder to unite with people of color of goodwill. In the fight against the 1% and white supremacy, we don't need more obstacles to unity, for unity is our only hope of defeating them both.

However, the answer isn't also an abject surrender. The thing about people motivated by hatred and bigotry is that you will never satisfy them. Attempts to do so are what we call "respectability politics." Think about the crap black kids get about sagging pants from older white people: the white people aren't really objecting to the sagging pants, but to the black bodies in them. You can pull up your pants, but they'll just find another reason to hate you. Similarly, Bernie supporters could try to please these black nationalists and do nothing else until the election, and it still wouldn't be good enough. We'll still be labelled racists and worse by them, just because Bernie and many of his supporters are white.

No, the only answer to what happened in Seattle is business as usual. We gotta keep fighting the good fight, we gotta keep bringing down the entrenched interests in our country and our party, we gotta keep reaching out to black America and other people of color, and above all we gotta do our level best to wreck white supremacy in this country. Black nationalism won't survive the death of white supremacy, so Bernie supporters ought to ignore their attacks on us and focus on punching up, against the power structure in this country that traps people of color in poverty and lets them die for no reason. In doing so, we should make common cause with people willing to engage in constructive criticism. We're not perfect and we don't know black issues better than black people, and we've got a lot we can learn from the leadership and activists of #BlackLivesMatter. Fortunately, it looks like Bernie's already taken this advice to heart, and invited #BlackLivesMatter activists to the heart of the campaign to help him better refine his platform and messaging.

We Bernie supporters, in emphasizing economic issues, also have something to contribute to the struggle for equality, if you take a historical view on it. Political and economic power go hand in hand, anywhere in the world you look. Kenneth Stampp's great insight on the failure of Reconstruction was that it was rooted in a failure to reform the plantations. Blacks got emancipation and civil rights, but without economic power couldn't keep them and oppression came back in the form of Jim Crow and segregation. A look at modern access order theory and institutional economics tells us the same thing: political inclusion only happens hand-in-hand with economic inclusion. Bernie's got the right policies to finally lift people of color out of poverty, and when that happens, white supremacy will be driven out of the state by a population of color as well-armed for political battle as the forces of white privilege.

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