Racism and Sexism in the Progressive Movement

Black Lives Trump Politeness

Anne Slater and Steve Hoffman | 8/26/2015, 2:50 p.m.
Sanders’ reputation as a progressive should in no way give him a pass on racial justice issues. He voted for ...
Mara Jacqueline Willaford, left, holds her fist overhead as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby at a rally in August 2015. The activists took over the microphone and refused to allow Sanders to speak. Elaine Thompson/AP

There has been a great deal of heated debate on social media and elsewhere about Black Lives Matter activists shutting down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle on August 8. As attendees at this rally celebrating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we admire the courage of the two young black women who took over the stage to demand that Sanders, and other candidates for president, address the epidemic of violence and oppression faced by black communities across the nation.

The real question is why Bernie Sanders did not try to engage with them. Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford boldly grabbed the microphone to point out that “progressive Seattle” is riddled with problems of police abuse, incarceration of youth of color, gentrification, disproportionate suspension of black schoolchildren, and other racial justice issues. And they demanded Sanders address racism. This is not the first time these issues have been raised to Sanders. At a Netroots Nation conference in July, black women called on him to put forward a racial justice agenda to dismantle structural racism in the U.S.

At the Seattle event Sanders made no attempt to speak with the Black Lives Matter activists, have a dialogue, or address the crowd on this burning issue of our times. If he’d desired, surely one of the rally organizers could have walked a mic over to him. Instead, he stood aside and shook his head, and then walked off the stage without speaking.

Sanders’ reputation as a progressive should in no way give him a pass on racial justice issues. He voted for Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which props up the racist prison-industrial complex. He voted to extradite Assata Shakur, an African American freedom fighter who is living in exile in Cuba. And his refusal to denounce Israel’s war against Palestinians gives tacit consent to some of the most racist repression on the planet.

Some say that the Black Lives Matter protestors went too far by interrupting the event. That it was rude. But after hundreds of years of continuous racist violence in the “land of the free”, it is ridiculous to expect anti-racist protestors to follow all Seattle protocols on politeness. Especially when they see the violence only escalating. The murder of black men continues unabated and, in July alone, five black women died in police custody.

Besides, politeness was in short supply when many in the largely white audience reacted to the Black Lives Matter action with intense hostility. Some shouted racist and sexist invectives like “tase them,” “get these black bitches off the stage,” and “call CPS” (Child Protective Services). It was chilling.

Members and supporters of Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party, and some others in the crowd, began loudly chanting to support the Black Lives Matter protesters. We debated those around us. When someone said they could not understand why the activists were taking over, one of our contingent shot back, “Have you had a family member arrested or killed by the police?” The answer was no, and a discussion began on why the fight for racial equality can’t wait.