When I heard about the black lives matter protesters who interrupted Sander’s attempt to speak at the Seattle rally, I felt shocked and then quickly conflicted. I felt shocked because I knew from personal research that Sanders has been a supporter of the black lives matter movement for quite some time and was a member of the civil rights movement as a young man. I thought, “They must be confused, or haven’t done their homework, this guy is on their side.” And I’m sure many people thought the same thing. But it wasn’t a mistake, they did it on purpose, one of the women even said that she didn’t actually aim to target one politician over another because she doesn’t believe in our electoral process at all, that historically it hasn’t worked for black people and that she only aimed to use his speech as a platform to further the cause.
Unfortunately, she is right in may ways. The system, economic or otherwise, as never favored blacks. It was built to use blacks to build our economy up (remember slavery?) and when that eventually failed, it was used to keep blacks down while doing everything possible to continue to profit off of them. Right now, there sit in prison, millions of black prisoners, disproportionate to the number of whites, who work practically for free and have no voting privileges. Many are there for petty crimes like marijuana possession or because of disproportionately long criminal sentences in comparison to white who have committed the same crimes. You don’t have to take my word for it, google it. The stats are there.
Getting back to Sanders, I felt confused, but that is also because I am biased in many ways. While I haven’t had hope in a long time for any kind of candidate or had faith in the electoral process in a long time, I really liked Bernie Sanders (I still do), and I want to be able to say that at least I tried to use the system we had and voting for the better of the two evils. But I am in a privileged position to say that – the majority of people who have won elections are whites who represent, (you guessed it), the needs of whites, people like me. So occasionally, things were actually better for people like me, I could stand to dare to hope. Black people can’t say the same with only one black president who for the most part, stayed away from any issues concerning race.
I am also biased because of growing up in a white culture and as a communications major. As a communications major, I have been taught to value effective communication, and that means hearing what everyone has to say. As someone who grow up in white culture, I have had the privilege of being able to voice my opinion and be heard, even if people didn’t agree. I was also taught that if you like someone and respect them, the way to show that respect is by listening to them without interruption. That giving everyone the chance to speak is good form, even if that person wouldn’t give you the same courtesy. This is all biased however, because of my privilege. Blacks have been protesting peacefully about police brutality, the unfair economy, the lack of educational support – you name it, they have been ignored. Because whites don’t want to hear it, and because the media isn’t interested in peaceful protests, they only care about drama, and that’s why we didn’t hear anything until the black community grew to the point of desperation and police militarization prompted tension so high that riots and serious backlash happened.
As a white, I cannot imagine how terrifying and frustrating all that would feel, but still, I understood that it WAS nevertheless, and defended their actions – reminding people that not all the activists were violent and that many of them were violent because they were defending themselves or because we had wrongly ignored their very rightful cries for help for too long. That I and we had no place in condemning their actions, violent or not, when we haven’t had to live that experience. I read hours and hours of articles and watched several documentaries about it. I read the autopsy reports. I posted the facts I could find on social media. I got into serious arguments both on Facebook and that were face-to-face confrontations and that was extremely difficult for me as a person who hates confrontation and is very sensitive. And again, this all made me biased because it was much easier for me to feel bad for myself who really had suffered far less than that of someone who has lived their whole life as a black person. And I knew that, but it is a natural human instinct to want to preserve oneself, unfortunately. I am human and I am flawed. I also knew that when I did these things, I did them to feel morally right, to make myself feel good, and while I still believe I am on the right side of things, it is still a selfish act. I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact that everyone, even me, does things for selfish reasons. Even when I try to help someone, I am helping them because I want to feel good and not think poorly of myself, but at least I am helping someone in the process and not hurting. I just have to be careful to remember this fact, and not allow it to influence my decisions. If I chose to do something kind, I cannot just do it when it suits my purposes, I have to do it even if it’s uncomfortable and settle for the fact that maybe I’m doing it more so I can live with myself and not so that I’ll actually feel good. I should not be doing this for a pat on the back or just for when it’s convenient for me personally. I have to recognize that it is their right and that they are doing this for a good reason.
One of the good points that the articles I’ve read by black lives matter activists make, is that we’re happy as white progressives to have the black vote, but not nearly as quick to jump to the aid of blacks or do what is really right for them. People booed and were generally saying some pretty rude things to the activists who interrupted Sanders because they were inconvenienced and felt they and Sanders were unjustly silenced… something blacks deal with everyday.
Almost everything I was raised with begs me not to accept this behavior and makes me uncomfortable… but I think that is the point. I should feel interrupted and I should feel uncomfortable because it is challenging prejudice that I still have. I am not free of racism and it’s hard to admit because this is very humbling and embarrassing for me. But it is very necessary. Black lives are in danger, and if I am really an ally, I must accept this tactic as part of the movement and continue to support it while continuing to challenge my own perceptions of what is morally “right.”
What was most upsetting to me was that I felt that Sanders has always been an outspoken supporter of the movement, and he is, but the truth is that everyone can improve. If there was really nothing better that he could have done, then the more explicit platform in support of the movement would not have surfaced just a few hours later on his website. I was forced to admit that the tactic worked, he responded with more than what he had already done.
While I still do not at all agree that calling him or the crowd “white supremacists” was accurate or necessary, it is true that he, like everyone else, does have prejudices he is unaware of and his support could always be better shown. He can always become a better ally and so can I, so can we (whites).
It also occurred to me that while he may have been targeted because he has far less security than opponents like Hillary or anyone in the GOP, he is also the one with the most potential. Hillary, nice as she is, is always late to the civil rights game. Not just with black rights, but it has been a pattern for her to be late in supporting gay rights (supported her husband’s signing of DOMA), and even many feminist issues. Sanders has been a supporter however, for decades and since he is running for President, we must assume or at least hope for his own sake that he has thick skin (as my friend wisely pointed out to me). If anyone would respond to this activism appropriately, it would be him. And it appears that he did (so far at least). I hope he continues to bump up that support for the movement and allows some of the activists to speak, further empowering themselves, as he graciously allowed the two women who interrupted him to do. He didn’t fight them on it, but stood back and then moved on when it was clear they didn’t plan to give the microphone back. I think that given his surprise, that was probably the best thing he could have done. And I hope in the future he actually invites more of them to speak out.
I also hope that even though this is still hard for me to accept as an appropriate reaction from a marginalized people, I get better at accepting that it is not for me to say what is appropriate for their cause as I am a white person with privilege. I am not black, but I do know as a gay person and as a woman what it feels like to be judged by people who are not affected on the outside of the issue – who say my judgments or behavior are unwarranted when they don’t know what it feels like or haven’t seen that other activist tactics were already tried and failed. I hope that experience will keep me open-minded when other people who are oppressed in ways I am not, challenge me in the future. This was a successful attempt on their part, it made me uncomfortable, and it challenged me to think more about it.
It made me uncomfortable, and that is the whole point: It often takes shock to make you realize what you are over-looking in your judgments. While it is a natural reaction to dislike it, it doesn’t mean it’s not good for me and more importantly for the black lives matter movement.
For now, I will say I support the movement and begrudgingly, I support the actions of the two women who made excellent points. My uncomfortableness is not a good excuse and is evidence that I need to promise to keep trying to be a better ally.