An Eyewitness Account: Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and Why We Can’t Solve Racism with Economics Alone
This weekend, at a rally celebrating the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare, two people identifying as Black Lives Matters activists got up on stage to challenge Senator Bernie Sanders on race and racism.
The rally was an enormous event—the culmination of months of hard work by many wonderful organizations and individuals—and around five thousand people stood in the hot sun at Westlake Center for a couple of hours to engage with an incredibly wide range of speakers on the importance of Medicare and Social Security. I was proud to be the speaker just before the senator was supposed to speak.
But watching what unfolded made me heartbroken.
Just as Sanders was thanking Seattle for being here, the protestors pushed their way on the stage, yelling at the senator and demanding the mic. After some minutes of discussion and argument, they were given the mic. They spoke for some time about Mike Brown and the many who have died, about the racism of Seattle, and about the pain they felt. They also asked for a four-and-a-half minute silence for Mike Brown, after which they said they would let Sanders speak. Eventually the crowd quieted down. But after the silence, it was not clear that they would let Sanders speak at all. Ultimately, event organizers closed down the event and Sanders left without speaking.
When the disruption first happened, the (mostly white) crowd turned ugly. It’s hard to identify in this scenario what is the chicken and what is the egg. Some of the aggression may have stemmed from the protestors calling the whole crowd racist. Some of it was from annoyance at the disruption. Some was probably from deep disagreement about tactics. Some was from deep disappointment because people had waited for hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon to hear Sanders.
Whatever it was, the conversations that ensued were painful. White and black people called each other names. Some white people called blacks who didn’t agree with what was happening racist. Middle fingers were raised in the air against the protestors. People booed the protestors and refused to chant “Black Lives Matter” with them. The rhetoric became worse, divided, like two sides in a war.
I was in the speakers’ tent when the interruption happened, and I was alerted to two young black girls in the tent who were the sisters of one of the speakers. They were weeping, saying how scared they were. I went over to comfort them and we stood there in a tight little circle with our arms around each other.
After the protests, several people came up and wanted to talk. Many were furious. Some outrageous things were said from anger and, in some cases, I had to take on people’s anger and misconceptions.
Some white people said they no longer support the Black Lives Matter movement. Others said they do support it, but this event had eroded their support. Some were befuddled; others understood.
It is clear to me that what happened at the rally is one small result of centuries of racism. As a country, we still have not recognized or acknowledged what we have wrought, and what we continue to inflict, on black people.
The much larger, deeply entrenched results are those that we see every day: how black kids as young as two years of age are being disciplined differently in their daycares and pre-k classes. How black people are routinely denied jobs that white people get with the same set of experiences and skills. How black people—women and men—continue to die at the hands of police, and in domestic violence, and on the streets. How black mothers must tell their children as young as seven or eight that they have to be careful about what pants or hoodies they wear, or that they should not assert their rights if stopped by police officers. How this country supports an institutionalized form of racism called the criminal justice system that makes profit —hard, cold cash—on jailing black and brown people.
I could go on and on.
The continued failure to call out the indelible stain of racism everywhere we go—that we refuse to see that racism exists and implicit bias exists in all of us, refuse to give reparations for slavery, refuse to even consider a truth and reconciliation process— leads us to the anger and rage that we watched erupt on stage and ripple through the crowd.
But the anger is not the problem; it’s a symptom of the disease of unacknowledged and unchallenged racism. Too often, we want to push everything underground. Too often, we place the blame on black people and not on the country, institutions, and people that wrought the violence.
So, even though people were incredibly frustrated and angry that they did not get to hear Sanders speak, the truth is that we cannot step away from this moment. I don’t have any answer on what is “right.” Bernie Sanders was a guest in our city, invited by a multiracial coalition to speak on some very important issues. Many who came to hear him speak were never able to do so. Incalculable hours of work went into yesterday’s event because it truly is important to spread the word about preserving and expanding Social Security and Medicare. None of the newspapers or television reports on the rally are reporting on any of those issues, because they were eclipsed by what happened.
That’s not necessarily “wrong”—it just is what it is. But neither can I say that what the protestors did is “wrong.” The goal of the protestors is to disrupt the complacency that too much of our country sits in, even as the urgency of racism and the killing of so many black people rages across our country. In many ways, that is what has generated the kind of conversation that is happening now. That it is painful, frustrating, murky and uncomfortable is actually where growth just may happen. Rather than name-calling and arguing about whether it is appropriate or not to employ radical tactics, we progressives need to start listening to each other.
I do think there was a moment—maybe even many others—where things could have taken a different turn. I wish, for example, that after the protestors were able to get the mic, say their piece and have the four-and-a-half minutes of silence, that they would have invited Bernie to take the mic and respond. Perhaps he would have tied racism together with Social Security, income inequality and all the other issues he was going to speak about, and the protestors would have seen that he has a powerful platform to make these same points. Perhaps he wouldn’t have—and then we would have seen that this left candidate on so many issues still has growing to do.
At the time of the rally, I had not endorsed Bernie Sanders, although I was incredibly excited about his candidacy. In fact, the campaign had asked me to be one of five people who would help introduce him at the campaign rally he was holding that night at the University of Washington. One of the primary reasons I had not put my name to his campaign is because I wanted to know more about his stands on race and racism. I asked if I could have some time to discuss this with him, and he did very graciously make some time for a short conversation shortly after the rally.
What I took from this conversation is this. Bernie knows he comes from a very white state and he’s a 73 year old white guy. He knows that running for president requires him to now speak to voters who are very different from those in his state. He is a truth-teller on economic issues in a way that no other candidate is. He gets the connection between large corporations, elections, and income inequality. He absolutely also understands that the criminal justice system is unjust, and has said he will seek to end the private prison system. He is deeply committed to equality on all counts, but his primary lens for all of his work—and a hugely necessary and rarely acknowledged lens—has been economic.
Some people, when they hear this, immediately respond that of course economic inequality has racism embedded in it. People of color are disproportionately affected by wealth inequality, lack of jobs, and poverty. However, many of us believe that racism must be called out separately from classism and economics. Having a strong race lens means you understand racism is threaded through and institutionalized in all of our systems and our very perceptions, threaded through how someone looks at you, treats you, thinks about you and your potential. Arguing about which is more important—class or race—completely misses the point. Racism is an economic problem, yes, but it’s a deeper and more nuanced problem than that, one that a single-payer health plan and an increased minimum wage won’t solve.
What I also know, from what Bernie said to me and what he has written about, is that he is certainly not unaware or oblivious to race. As Mayor of Burlington, Vermont—in that very white state—Bernie endorsed Jesse Jackson for President and Jackson went on to win the state. Bernie was also active in the civil rights movement, helping to organize one of the university desegregation movements in the 1960s. Equally important, he has fought and voted against much of the violence perpetrated against people here and abroad—against wars, against trade agreements, against incarceration. And his analysis does connect so many of the important threads within the progressive movement.
But my sense is that he is on a different stage now, and still feeling his way through to a deeper comfort with talking about race and racism in a way that calls it out unapologetically, loudly and clearly. He has to more consciously connect the problems of racism to the solutions he already articulates on education, economics and incarceration. As I said when I had the honor of introducing him at his evening rally, as arguably the most left-leaning presidential candidate, he is in a unique position to do so. And we are in a unique moment where we crave that kind of leadership in a presidential campaign.
I told Bernie in my conversation with him that he needed to talk head-on about institutional racism. He said he agreed and he would do it in the evening. And he did—to an enormous, cheering crowd of 15,000 people. That’s a huge platform for our messages. There’s more to do and learn for sure, but is any one of us perfect? The most we can ask for is for someone who listens and cares deeply, who is trustworthy, and who will do what he says. I know I learned a lot in my campaign and I will continue to grow from listening to people’s voices. I believe Bernie Sanders is growing too—and I hope (and yes, believe) that we’ll look back on this moment and see his emergence as a leader who brings our movements for economic, racial and social justice together in a powerful way.
I would love for the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter nationally to sit down and talk about an agenda on racial justice that he can use his presidential platform to help move. Imagine rolling out that agenda and inviting black people to talk about it on stage with him. Now that excites me. Already, hours after the rally at Westlake, his campaign has added a page titled “Racial Justice” to their website addressing police, political, and legal violence against black people. It’s not everything, but it’s a very good start. He also told me that he’ll be putting together and introducing a package of legislation on this topic.
I know we will still each need to work out for ourselves where we want to stand in this moment, this discussion and many more like it that will certainly arise. As we do, I hope that we can open our hearts to all of the pain and suffering in the world, and be as compassionate and kind as possible to each other so that we can also heal as we learn and listen.
One of the questions that I have been thinking deeply about since the rally was disrupted is this: How do we call people in even as we call them out? As a brown woman, the only woman of color in the state senate, often the only person of color in many rooms, I am constantly thinking about this—even if it is often because I have to not because I want to.
To build a movement, we have to be much wiser than those who are trying to divide us. We have to take our anger and rage and channel it into building, growing, loving, holding each other up. We need our outlets too, our places of safety where we can say what we think without worrying about how it’s going to land, where we can call out even our white loved ones, friends, and allies for what they are not doing.
But in the end, if we want to win for all of us on racial, economic and social justice issues, we need multiple sets of tactics, working in tandem. Some are disruptive tactics. Some are loving tactics. Some are truth-telling tactics. Some can only be taken on by white people. Some can only be taken on by people of color. Sometimes we need someone from the other strand to step in and hold us up. Other times, we have to step out and hold them up.
This is bigger than any one presidential candidate. It’s as big as all of us. Regardless of who is elected president in 2016, we all still live together. Each of us has a different role to play but we all have to hold the collective space for movement-building together. It’s the only way we move forward.