Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders, and the power of responsive politics

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For the second time in as many months, Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Bernie Sanders campaign event. At a rally on Saturday in Seattle, co-founders of the city's chapter of Black Lives Matter, Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, took the stage, demanded the mic, and confronted Sanders on what they said was his campaign's failure to outline specific policy proposals to address structural racism.

"Bernie, you were confronted at NetRoots by black women," Johnson said. "You have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like [Martin] O’Malley did."


Johnson and Willaford also observed four-and-a-half minutes of silence to mark the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by Darren Wilson, a white officer with the Ferguson Police Department.

The two activists kept control of the mic after the observance ended. Some people in the crowd booed, others called for their arrests. In response, Johnson told the crowd, "I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me." Meanwhile, Sanders stood off to the side of the stage, and ultimately walked off after event organizer Robby Stern announced that he was shutting down the rally.


The protest was disruptive. It was angry and escalated quickly. Thousands of people who had turned out to hear Sanders speak about Social Security and Medicare went home frustrated.

But less than 24 hours later, Sanders' official campaign site posted a page outlining its racial justice platform, a set of policies broken into sections addressing physical violence ("acts of violence being perpetuated by police, and racist terrorism by white supremacists"); political violence ("the fight for minority voting rights is… inseparable from the struggle for democracy itself"); legal violence ("we must reform our criminal justice system to ensure fairness and justice for people of color"); and economic violence ("communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation").

The lengthy set of proposals are the clearest, most comprehensive articulation of Sanders' approach to structural racism since his campaign launched in May, and Black Lives Matter got him there.

Sanders' campaign said the racial justice platform had already been in the works, but the timing of its release—weeks after Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted his appearance at Netroots Nation and just a day after protesters shut down his Seattle rally—is telling. Sanders may be right to defend his record on issues of racial justice and position himself as the candidate who will fight hardest on those issues today, but Black Lives Matter protesters forced his campaign to finally express—in explicit, intersectional terms—the daily realities of structural racism.


The tactics on display Saturday were no doubt part of what forced Sanders to clearly articulate the policies he believes make him the candidate most aligned with the objectives of the (admittedly amorphous) Black Lives Matter movement.

For liberals and conservatives who seem to revel in intra-movement fights among progressives, the protests were mocked as another example of the Left supposedly eating its own. But transformative protest, as Jamil Smith pointed out Monday at The New Republic, is rarely tidy:

Since when are protest tactics designed to make the people whom they are targeting feel more comfortable and less annoyed? And since when is Sanders, or Carson, or any candidate exempt from being pushed? Just since Friday, we’ve passed the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, having seen both another young man killed by a cop and more violence in Ferguson. Yet we still have black conservatives like Carson letting the world believe that black activists trying to fix this are the true racial problem, and some white liberals telling them to ask for help more politely.


People can disagree with the strategy of disrupting a speech, but the fact remains that the campaign recognized something important in those actions: it needed to be more specific about racism. The strategy of collapsing racial justice and economic justice into a single issue, which Sanders' campaign has done in the past, flattened the ways that institutional racism encompasses more than just the systemic financial disenfranchisement of black Americans. By getting specific—by putting names to different forms of racist violence—Sanders' campaign is engaging in the best version of responsive politics: bringing leaders into alignment with the needs and lived experiences of the people they say they want to represent.

Another change that came about as a result of the activism from Black Lives Matter: Sanders' campaign hired Symone Sanders, a black criminal justice activist who is a volunteer coordinator with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, as its new national press secretary. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Sanders said she contacted the Vermont senator's campaign to offer advice on bringing racial justice into focus and engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement.


“One of my suggestions, he took it and ran with it on Meet the Press, is that racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” she told BuzzFeed. “I [told him] you know, economic equality is an issue. It’s something we need to address. But for some people it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, it doesn’t matter what your parents do. It doesn’t matter that Sandra Bland had a job and was on her way to teach for her alma mater. It doesn’t matter. None of that matters.”

Rather than focus on his former activism in the Civil Rights movement, Sanders needed to be explicit about what policies he would put into place right now, she said.


“Educating America, the community, letting people know who Bernie Sanders is and what he’s about,” she said. “And not just, ‘Oh, I fought for civil rights and I protested and I sat at the lunch counters.’ That’s important and that’s great but that was 50 years ago and he has a lot more to stand on than just what he did 50 years ago.”

All politicians have blindspots, some larger than others. But the effective ones—particularly those campaigning under the mantle of populism—are responsive to the needs of a given moment. That's what happened with the Fight for $15 and the recent focus among Democratic candidates on paid leave and affordable education. Protesters (from Black Lives Matter and other movements like the Fight for $15, often working in collaboration) have shown that waiting for politicians to catch up is no longer a workable solution. If the work required to make that happen disrupts a few rallies but brings a campaign into step with the needs of millions of Americans, then it's a cost they're willing to pay.