Bernie, interrupted

A little over a month ago, I wrote about Jennicet Gutiérrez’ disruption of a White House Pride event, relating it to a few seemingly isolated events happening at the same time in our ongoing culture wars — namely, a California Superior Court decision that preemptively struck down a ballot initiative inciting violence against queer people, and the growing movement to remove the Confederate Flag from public places across the South. I wasn’t quite explicit, but the overarching theme I meant to reflect on was how, for many Americans, this is still a culture of death, and active resistance is both vital and necessary.

Marriage equality may now be a reality, but our most “liberal” state very nearly voted on whether to execute all gay people. Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, voting rights are under a sustained attack as a symbol of unrepentant hate flies over public lands. (Not to even mention the ever-rising body count of unaccountable, out-of-control police). As our President celebrated a victory for gay rights, LGBT asylees — and trans* refugees in particular — languish in federal detention centers, many in solitary confinement.

I was glad to see Jennicet Gutiérrez call him out on it, even as a person who has sympathetic — if not mixed — feelings about President Obama.

What really stood out for me about that incident, however, was the way a well-employed, well-positioned group of DC insiders hissed and booed at a grassroots activist taking direct action in their midst. I feel extraordinarily — ew — watching people take selfies with Obama and chanting his name, silencing Ms. Gutiérrez as the President says to her: “Shame on you.”

Not a good look for a Pride celebration, in this writer’s far from humble opinion.

So, that said, it was like a flashback watching the video of and reading some of the responses to Bernie Sanders being interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle this Saturday.

I found two different videos of the disruption: one, as it happened, the other, once the activists were allowed to speak. The very beginning of each provides an interesting contrast. Where Bernie begins by saying “thank you Seattle for being one of the most progressive cities in the United States of America,” Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford begin by reminding everyone that they are on stolen Indian land.

They go on to talk about police brutality in Seattle specifically, the school-to-prison pipeline, gentrification, and the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death: topics unlikely to be found among Senator Sanders’ talking points.

Even as a tentative Bernie supporter, I have to say that I support the protesters in this instance. Ever since the disruption at Bernie’s Netroots Nation appearance last month, the Sanders campaign’s most adamant “supporters” have aggressively berated Black activists online about his civil rights record and history of organizing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The phenomenon became so endemic that some Twitter users responded with the hashtag #BernieSoBlack, mocking — again — his supporters for the most part, and not necessarily the candidate himself. Just run a Twitter search for “Bernie supporters” or any variant. The comments are, by and large, very negative.

Black Lives Matter protestors in Seattle, screenshot via YouTube

Black Lives Matter protestors in Seattle, screenshot via YouTube

In keeping with that image of Bernie supporters, the crowd’s response to the disruption was at times quite ugly. And, looking at the press release issued by Black Lives Matter Seattle, it is clear that the intended audience of this action was Sanders’ audience: “while we are drowning in their liberal rhetoric, we have yet to see them support grassroots movements or take on any measure of risk and responsibility for ending the tyranny of white supremacy in our country and in our city.” They called for Sanders to release a criminal justice reform platform, which he promptly did the day after the incident.

All things considered, that sounds like a successful action. Even if Sanders had been planning on releasing that segment of his platform later, they kept the pressure on him to take a stand in the here and now, and he listened.

The question is really whether his supporters will listen. I began this post by recapping just some of the ways that this society is still openly hostile to many of those who are not straight, white, able-bodied, and/or cis-gendered. It can be hard to reconcile that fact with truth that this President has been largely successful in implementing aspects of the broader liberal agenda. Or that fact with the reality this is also the same country where Donald Trump is ahead in the Republican primaries.

Our atavistic devotion to presidential politics is not very helpful in that regard.

The funny thing is — aside from Jill Stein, who is far more serious than any of the Republicans — Bernie is the one candidate who’s talking about the need for a mass social movement to create what he often calls a “political revolution” in this country. Which is to say, this campaign isn’t about him; it’s about the people who elect him building a coalition to maintain pressure on the political class to enact their desired reforms. A lot of presidential candidates have said that, though. Bernie is solid on the issues but he needs to open up his campaign to the movements, not just by meeting with them either but by amplifying their voices and more.

Over the weekend I read an interesting essay on the Black Lives Matter movement one year out, written by a person whose parents were in the Black Panthers when she was a young girl. This particular argument really stood out for me:

From the 1970s ‘culture of poverty’ theories to the mass criminalisation of black communities in the 1980s and 1990s, black people have long been the subjects or objects of debate. This moment of direct action, however, rejects the forcible control of black racial identity, political power and economic position through biased and brutal policing. Instead, it casts black people as the leading protagonists in a story about race, power and resistance where we are both character and author.

Alternatively, Feminista Jones, a writer and social worker from New York City, put it this way:

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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