White Liberals, Black Lives Matter Protesters Are Targeting Bernie Sanders (And Us) For A Reason

Bernie Sanders (image credit: Gage Skidmore)

Bernie Sanders (image credit: Gage Skidmore)

The more I pondered Saturday's events, the more I began to recognize that, by and large, I've simply never had to take such dramatic action in order to be heard. 

Last weekend, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle to speak at a series of campaign events. Only seconds after Sanders took the stage at his first appearance, two members of the Black Lives Matter movement stormed the stage and seized the microphone.  That's right, two black women shut down a Bernie Sanders rally in the middle of white, liberal Seattle before he even got to speak. And people are pissed. 

As a white liberal, I belong to the demographic targeted by the BLM protesters. Their message was that we, like Sanders, haven't done enough to bring about real change. They argue that we are part of the same oppressive system that we decry, and that we can't be liberals when we buy into a racist system.

Like many of my fellow white Seattle liberals, my initial response to the BLM protesters' tactics was discomfort. I can't imagine ever jumping on stage and preventing a candidate from speaking. Yet, the more I pondered Saturday's events, the more I began to recognize that, by and large, I've simply never had to take such dramatic action in order to be heard. 

As a woman, my voice and my experience have often been dismissed and invalidated, but I have never suffered the kind of prejudice and oppression that black women face on a daily basis. I have never been profiled or targeted by the police, and I've never been taken into police custody over a traffic stop. I have learned to remain calm and logical and to work within the system, even using it to my advantage, because in almost all cases the system is designed to support people like me. It's my system, no matter how much I deplore it, and the acceptance of it by thousands of white liberals like me is what allows it to remain in place. 

If the actions of the BLM protesters make me uncomfortable, it's even more uncomfortable to consider their effectiveness. Prior to the disruption of his campaign events in Philadelphia and Seattle, Sanders wasn't talking much about race other than in terms of economics. After these protests, however, suddenly he and every other Democratic presidential candidate has something to say about race, and Sanders has since hired a young black woman to guide his new racial justice platform. For all of the hand-wringing of my liberal cohorts, it's impossible to argue that the BLM protests weren't effective — two angry women were able to re-focus our national conversation around racism as the millions of people around the world who held peaceful protests in support of Ferguson.  

We are taught to work within the system, and to engage in conversations, not riots. But, those teachings are based on the idea that working within the system will eventually result in change. That, if we just wait long enough, things will get better. But, what if they aren't getting better, and peacefully sitting in intersections and talking to each other about race isn't working? Unless we expect the system to change immediately, it is reprehensible to expect black men and women to bide their time and wait for us to bestow their full human rights upon them. They are the victims of our oppression, and the burden to change, right fucking now, is on us. 

Many of my friends have been quick to tell me that the BLM protesters are shooting themselves in the foot by taking such radical action. My white friends have said that they won't support the BLM movement anymore, and even that these two protesters reflected poorly on the entire black community. When I hear these criticisms, I am reminded that we live in a world where two black women preventing an old, white, powerful man from speaking is considered "radical". If they are shooting their movement in the foot by speaking out, that's still better than being shot in the back or choked to death by police, or dying alone in a jail cell. What is "embarrassing" and "inappropriate" is the complete and utter failure of our system to protect and respect the lives of black men and women, not the two women who advocated for their cause. 

One of the main criticisms of this event has been that the women who spoke up are targeting the candidate who, at least presumably, aligns himself the most with their ideologies. Sanders has long been touted as a civil rights leader because, 50 years ago, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. While I in no way mean to minimize that important part of his history, it's exactly that — history. Somewhere along the way, Sanders lost sight of the complexity of racial issues. He's long been senator of an overwhelmingly white state and he's fallen into the complacency of believing that solving income inequality will solve racial inequality. 

While Sanders is better than the clown car of horrors that is the Republican crop of presidential candidates, he's failed to listen to the BLM movement or even respond to protesters — twice. While it wasn't their turn to speak, Sanders could have chosen to listen anyway. He could have shown a real willingness to hear the voices of the disenfranchised. Hell, he could have simply stuck around. Instead, he dismissed the protesters and their movement, and my fellow white liberals in the audience were quick to do the same. Afterwards, he told reporters that the protesters "didn't want to hear anything." For all of his "progressive" billing, he reacted like pretty every other old white man ever.

It's no secret that we are a nation of rabble-rousers. Our forefathers dumped tea in the harbor and refused to line up and fight like gentlemen. We are a nation that exists because people came together to overthrow what they found to be an oppressive government. If we are uncomfortable with the idea of taking radical action to save black lives, it is because we are uncomfortable, on at least some level, with changing the status quo. Whether that discomfort stems from the fear of giving up our own privilege, making ourselves allies with the oppressed, or confronting our own racism, it is hard to say. Perhaps it's a little bit of all of the above. But, in every case, that discomfort should serve as a reminder that even we, the liberal "good guys," are part of the problem. 

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