“Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation. – Audre Lorde
One Year Ago
It’s been one year since Marissa Johnson, several other black activists, and I interrupted Bernie Sanders as he spoke in front of thousands at the end of a public event in Seattle, a day before the one-year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown.
A month before, Sanders had been interrupted by black activists at Netroots after the death of Sandra Bland. The movement for black lives is often said to be in the tradition of call and response. In our minds, folks at the Netroots action had put out the call to confront politicians along the campaign trail, and we followed up with a response.
Countless pieces have been written about the action, each with their own spin and bits of revisionist history thrown in.
But here’s what actually happened. This is what I actually experienced that day:
After we forced our way onto the stage, Marissa spoke for several minutes, and then called for a four-and-a-half-minute moment of silence for Brown. Throughout her speech and the moment of silence, thousands of people in the nearly all-white crowed shouted, screamed, cried, swore at us and called for us to be tased and arrested.
Sanders supporters quickly began physically attacking — hitting, spitting, biting, tearing up signs, trying to push past — a wall of dozens of white allies who had come to support our action, and continued throwing water bottles at us on the stage.
I closed my eyes and listened to the screaming continue and the sounds of cameras flashing as the media surrounded us. I lifted a black power fist in the air with one hand and asked Marissa to hold my other hand, and I cried through the entire four and a half minutes.
That small, singular action changed the presidential campaign. It sparked ongoing conversations about respectability, electoral politics, representational democracy, and race in the United States.
And it forced the candidates, particularly the Democrats, to finally respond to what black activists had been saying for months.
Hours after our action, Sanders announced that he’d hired Symone Sanders, a black woman, as his new press secretary. The next day, he added a “racial justice” component to his platform. Hillary Clinton did the same shortly later. From there, Sanders’s language changed from a “colorblind”, class-reductionist, non-intersectional approach; to finally uttering “Black Lives Matter,” and mentioning Sandra Bland at nearly every campaign appearance.
Though the policy changes added to Sanders’ platform were an improvement, they were still far from the type of changes people were demanding. Meanwhile, despite having catalyzed these conversations, we continued to see murdered black bodies spread across the internet like lynching porn.
Many people felt like things were getting worse. But, in reality, these injustices were simply being revealed.
Fast forward to the present and leaked DNC emails confirming what was already obvious to many: the Democratic party had colluded with Clinton’s campaign in order to sabotage Sanders and keep him from being the democratic nominee. After the emails were released, Sanders supporters were outraged that he had been treated unjustly.
However, for many, the emails were even more broadly significant, in that they confirmed feelings of the Democratic Party’s corporatization, corruption and oligarchical tendencies. People soon began questioning if the Democratic Party could be as much of a threat to true representational democracy as the Republicans.
Additionally, these emails confirmed that the Democratic Party had tried to control and manipulate the movement for black lives by vetting high profile career activist as potential surrogates. Meanwhile, on-the-ground, working class activists and community organizers are still deliberately left out of Democratic events, since they don’t fit the most convenient narrative, and therefore can’t be used as pawns.
Two examples of this are Erica Garner (daughter of Eric Garner) who endorsed Bernie Sanders, and Samaria Rice (mother of Tamir Rice), who does not endorse any of the presidential candidates. Notably – though both are prominent movement leaders who have also personally been impacted by police brutality – their voices are repeatedly ignored and silenced.
They were both absent from the DNC’s “Mother’s of the Movement,” (a phrase first used by Erica Garner – though she has repeatedly been left out of the narrative that she helped create) feature, as neither of them had endorsed Hillary Clinton. These omissions help highlight the exploitation and co-optation present in these types of features. It serves as one small example of the many ways that the establishment uses black bodies as tokens – advertising them on stage in order to serve their own agenda, rather than actually engaging in material ways.
Parading these mothers on stage, while continuing to fuel mass-incarceration and the militarization of the police, is a farce and a slap in the face of black communities. It screams loud and clear Clinton is not concerned with all black lives, just those that serve her, sadly; and even then, only when the cameras are rolling.
Despite Clinton’s well documented history of classism, racism, and anti-blackness – in 1996, for example, she referred to black youth as “super predators” who have “no conscience” and “no empathy” – many still see her as the “lesser evil” in this presidential election season. Personally, I don’t think of her as a lesser evil, but rather an evil that has undergone some rebranding, like an energy-efficient drone.
Then, of course, there’s Donald Trump. Who has literally no qualifications or experience in office. Who has repeatedly compared Marissa and I to ISIS. Who has successfully invigorated a voter base of fascist and white supremacists. If Clinton is a solar-powered drone, Trump is a full-on nuclear bomb.
And yet, fascism and white supremacy in this country existed long before Trump’s campaign and will continue on with or without him. What worries me most about the way people talk about Trump is how people resort to exceptionalize him by labeling him “crazy” and “insane”, when his views are actually quite common and widespread. The solution to ending fascism is not nearly as simple as “vote Hillary, defeat Trump”.
American culture has this tendency to focus on individuals (or in terms of elections, individual politicians), but the issues facing our country are systemic. They can’t be solved by one person alone. The issues that face this country are larger than these candidates, and small institutional changes alone will not bring peace or justice.
Folks commonly look at Black Lives Matter’s tactics from within a framework that is contained to electoral politics, but it’s become clear that we must go beyond that framework to dismantle a system that was founded off of enslavement and genocide.
When there are no adequate options, disruption is a way to reveal the issues, so that they can begin to be addressed. Our action one year ago was not about Bernie Sanders. The event itself was not even a Bernie Sanders rally. Rather, it was a usurping of power and an indictment of the system in its entirety.
To the dismay of many – especially in Seattle – Bernie didn’t win the Democratic nomination. It looks like Clinton will win against Trump this November, and it will be business as usual in America.
Folks continue to fetishize and idolize various celebrity politicians, and yet all politicians hold office within an imperialist political party and within an unjust system. Though Bernie was responsive after our action, none of his policy proposals would have gone far enough to bring about revolution.
For those who are feeling completely disenfranchised by this election, let this serve as a call to action. Within our dysfunctional political system, regardless of who is president, folks need to ask themselves what, beyond voting, they, personally, and materially, are doing to disrupt and destroy racism, fascism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.
The movement will continue disruptions and escalations as long as the system continues a daily crusade of global violence and destruction. It is our duty.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
― Assata Shakur