How Black Lives Matter is making Bernie Sanders a better candidate

By Kate Aronoff | ( Waging Nonviolence)

If you spent any time in the progressive blogosphere this past week and a half, chances are that you have some feelings about activists in Seattle disrupting a rally for Bernie Sanders last weekend. To recap: On two Saturdays ago, Black Lives Matter Seattle organizers Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford climbed onstage in front of several hundred people at the city’s Westlake Plaza, demanding a platform to speak. (Notably, the Sanders rally also took place as thousands gathered in Ferguson, Missouri to commemorate the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death on August 9.)

Eventually, event organizers handed the pair a microphone that they used to discuss the issues they saw missing in Bernie’s economic populism — namely, police violence and a focus on systemic racial injustice. As they challenged Bernie and his supporters to prioritize these problems, they were boo’ed down aggressively by a mostly white crowd. Johnson, Willard and other members of the movement for black lives have continued to face slurs and insults on social media throughout the week, along with accusations of being plants from either the right wing or the Clinton campaign. Was the interruption messy? Yes. Did it warrant the vitriol from white, largely progressive audiences that followed? No.

Among many useful perspectives, Van Jones penned five lessons from the uproar for CNN last week. Nation editor Kai Wright offered another helpful rejoinder: “Successful movements have always discomfited those invested in the status quo, including progressives,” he wrote. “White people of all political stripes will be challenged, even shaken by this movement.” By interrupting Sanders, Johnson and Willaford clearly struck a nerve with Sanders’ base.

Disruption, as Wright noted, is the lifeblood of social movements. Having been arrested for coordinating a sit-in to desegregate Chicago public schools, it’s a fact Sanders understands better than most. It also means Sanders — and, perhaps more so, his supporters — should know that a history of fighting for equal rights doesn’t inoculate any candidate from a full-throated challenge by today’s movements.

Days after she took the stage, Johnson went on the radio show This Week In Blackness. She explained to host Elon James White that, “My gaze is not toward politicians in getting them to do something in particular. I think they will change what they do based off of what I do, but that’s not my center. My center is using electoral politics as a platform.” Given its adoption of “Shut It Down,” as modus operandi, supporters of the movement for black lives should welcome the fact that protesters are throwing a wrench in the presidential election circuit.

In the case of Sanders, it’s working. Within 24 hours, Bernie’s campaign released a racial justice platform articulating policy proposals to take on the multi-faceted nature of racist violence: physical, political, legal and economic, where most of Sanders’ energy has been directed thus far. The platform proclaims simply that, “We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color.” Saturday night, he also hired black criminal justice advocate Symone Sanders as press secretary, someone who has been openly critical of the campaign’s silence on racial justice. Even so, the Sanders campaign still has plenty of room for improvement; a web page and a black staffer do not equal a commitment to racial justice.

Looking forward to what may well be a disruption-filled election season and the continuation of a Sanders campaign filled with big crowds and surging poll numbers, there seem to be a few lessons that white progressives can take away from this past week. For one, be respectful of people — particularly those whose life experiences are different than yours. Most of us already do this, using a certain script of spoken and unspoken rules, bounded by what society generally deems acceptable. “I will not,” for example, “vocalize every snap judgement I make in my head.”

These rules don’t actually change that much when you start talking about politics or log on to Facebook, no matter how progressive your views. You may even be right. It still doesn’t give you license to berate anyone, let alone black organizers with whom you theoretically share a commitment to racial justice. And, if you do share that commitment, denouncing the movement for black lives because it did something that made you uncomfortable probably means you weren’t all that supportive in the first place.

At their best, movements are big, complicated hordes of activity. The movement for black lives is no different, and supporting this or any movement — especially as white organizers — means being comfortable with a certain level of discomfort and loss of control, both in terms of the tactics activists are using and the challenges they pose to their targets. For all their messiness, movements make our politics better. Sanders is already a better candidate and should be pushed to be even more accountable to the causes he claims to support. So, if you really want to see Bernie succeed, keep calm, show up, and support the movement for black lives.

Kate Aronoff is an organizer and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. While in school, she worked extensively with the fossil fuel divestment movement on the local and national level, co-founding Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN). She is currently working to build a student power network across Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence and appears here courtesy of a Creative Commons license.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

MSNBC from last week: “Bernie Sanders ‘Black Lives Matter’ Protester [Interview] | msnbc ”

22 Responses

  1. The last time I saw public hostility towards black people coming from white progressives was on election night in 2008. The anti-gay proposition 8 passed in California, and I heard well-known progressive radio hosts unreasonably and nastily blaming black voters. I’m not sure how important it is to be respectful. I’m white and support progressive positions, but there are times i’d like to hurl a lot of vitriol at the ice coffee

  2. Two points:
    1) You forgot to add “much to their chagrin”, because I don’t think “making Sanders a better candidate” is their goal.

    2) Sanders’ platform and policy arguments have long addressed these issues. Arguing now that #BLM’s rude behavior sparked this as some sort of “change” on Sanders’ part ignores his entire past record.

    • I agree with your points. Preventing Mr. Sanders from speaking and berating his supporters is really not the way to achieve a positive outcome, IMHO.

    • Where would radicals have ever gotten without rude behavior, impossible demands, impudent upstagings of the last generation of progressives… or even the implicit possibility of armed revolution?

  3. as a non-Republican conservative,
    I read BLM as a black flag op to help Clinton.

    The leaks from her meeting with them only confirm that.

    • I’m not one to fall for conspiracy theories, but this seems plausible.

  4. I disagree with Ms. Aronoff’s conclusions with respect to Mr. Sanders. She sounds very young and feels she needs to lecture “us”, telling us how we should be feeling and thinking . This line is particularly off putting: “a web page and a black staffer do not equal a commitment to racial justice.” She needs to drill down a bit deeper into Bernie’s life and record. She should also study the non-violent movements of Gandhi and MLK. They did not disrupt events by grabbing microphones and refusing to allow others to speak.

    • Where would Dr. King have been without the threat of Malcolm X? How far did Gandhi get before the British confronted the danger that Indians would side with the Japanese invaders? Where did any nonwhite radicals anywhere get with the White capitalist powers until they could threaten to go over to the Communists? And look at how bad things have gone since that ultimate blackmail threat has ceased to exist.

      • “And look at how bad things have gone since that ultimate blackmail threat has ceased to exist.” Your sophistry is on a par with Ms. Aronoff’s. Blackmail? As an end to racism? Or the threat of violence as a means to attain the goals of a non-violent protest? Yes, that will clearly make black lives matter to everyone.

        • You refuted none of my examples because you can’t deal with the necessary ugliness and dirtiness of wars by the weak against the strong. The destruction of the colonial empires after WW2 was all about blackmail:
          1. the US using its Marshall Plan aid to force Europeans to shut down their racist empires
          2. the fear that Communists would exploit the sins of these empires to create a global race war
          3. and of course the threat of the indigenous themselves to commit armed revolution against war-ruined governments.

          Further examples of blackmail succeeding in a good cause: the fall of apartheid, the independence of Ireland thanks to a brutal assassination campaign, the US threat of a cutoff of Marshall Plan aid to force the UK and France to abandon their alliance with Israel in 1956, Gen. Grant’s forcing the Confederates to abandon their plan to execute all captured white officers who commanded black troops by threatening tit-for-tat. And finally, the reality that FDR and the New Deal were enabled by a real fear among the oligarchy of a workers’ revolution in 1932.

          It used to happen all the time. It’s beginning to look long overdue when I see all the crimes of inequality tearing down all the good that past revolutionaries and radicals have accomplished.

  5. I appreciated this article very much. I think the Black Lives Matter movement will make Bernie stronger – because he will be forced to develop part of his platform and address racial injustice head on — but also because if he’s successful in doing so, he has the chance to be the champion of this cause. By letting Black Lives Matter speak and then responding to them with thoughtful policy suggestions, he stands to add them to his base. A quick search suggests that 12% of the voting population is black. If he can become recognized as the politician who cares about their well-being (which I truly believe he does) then he stands to not only survive their disruptions… but get a great number of votes!! Democracy.. hey.. look at that!

  6. Though it is certainly better to have all this happen now than next year, the views I’ve seen expressed by “color-blind” leftists at, say, Daily Kos has made me angry. Describing BLM protestors as “shrieking”, “lazy”, “dependent on others”, and generally threatening. Have I missed any of the major racist memes? I even saw the divide-and-conquer trick, calling Blacks racist on the grounds that police proportionately murder even more Native Americans.

    My response is, the American Revolution was triggered by a tiny fraction of the violence that our police commit against African-Americans and other minorities. The anger of those persons in being treated as enemy aliens by a police force that clearly regards Whites as the only real Americans (and the only ones who pay enough in taxes to treat as their bosses) should be enormous.

    The solution for healing this breach is in looking at why American capitalism needs ni**ers. But to do that, you have to move so far to the left of where Sanders is now as to truly alienate 60% of the American population.

    During eight years of watching White radicals piss on Obama, while refusing to acknowledge the people who vote for him, I have concluded:

    1. said radicals have failed to convince their fellow Whites to embrace their ideals, and can’t accept that this makes them failures

    2. they really, really hate the idea of sharing power with poor people who still have allegiance, rightly or wrongly, to ideas like patriotism, economic growth, upward mobility, and personal consumption

    3. they refuse to pass the baton to the new, mostly-nonwhite proletariat who genuinely need class struggle defined on their own terms

    4. Occupy and BLM are both uprisings against the system and against the dogmatic Marxist position of how we are supposed to replace it. We are at ground zero, trying to replace Das Kapital with something based on the 21st century multicultural world.

  7. Yes, I was so privileged to be in the audience when I was judged by the color of my skin and called a WHITE RACIST PROGRESSIVE…
    … Instead of getting to know the character of my being.


    • All they need to know is how far you are willing to go to create equality. If you tell them to wait another 100 years for your progressive agenda to improve their great-great-great grandchildren’s lives, you’re just as bad as the White racist progressives who told the Civil Rights movement to be patient – and ended up having to deal with Malcolm X and the Panthers. And yes, by our standards those 1960s progressives are racists – how do you know how future generations in a mostly-nonwhite America will judge us?

  8. Oh, and a side note…
    The day the Black Lives Matter movement protests and storm Obama’s stage is the moment that Black Lives will Matter!

  9. These young people have a message and are eager to share it. They need a little mentoring on political tactics and framing their message effectively.

  10. “a web page and a black staffer do not equal a commitment to racial justice.” …

    Perhaps Ms. Aronoff, but pushing too hard too fast will distance those tentative voters all candidates need to swing things their way, like the moderates and the Independents.

    An old axiom holds true here: Get elected first, them make changes.

  11. Those who argue (against the voices of such as Cornel West I might add) that Bernie Sanders has a racial obtuseness problem or worse are almost certainly playing with peoples’ minds, dizzying the partridge, as they say in Spanish. Sanders doesn’t have a problem vis a vis the black community that Hillary doesn’t have ten or a hundred times over. Let us all recall that she and her husband both promoted legislation that was specifically designed to both play the race card, buy off the white rural male vote (aka Bubba) by redirecting billions of dollars in federal funds from serving chronically depressed and distressed impoverished black and minority communities and alchemizing it into 100,000 new police jobs, prison jobs, new prisons, police gear and accoutrements, etc: a dastardly and predatory solution to a problem for which African Americans and other vulnerable, generally impoverished, communities bore no determining responsibility, i.e. the problem of outsourcing and offshoring that robbed working class jobs from all the ethnic and white communities to begin with. President Clinton contributed rollingly (and was paid royally) for inaugurating a new era of superoutsourcing, per the dictates of his Wall Street patrons: another nail in the economic coffin of the black community, which was then dispatched for additional political and economic profit by having its youth sent to jails at unprecedented (but entirely preventable) levels and with concomitant celerity. Bill Clinton’s second term, and by extension his wife’s ongoing political future, was bought at the cost of the lost liberty of hundreds of thousands of black, minority, and other impoverished American youth, but that cost and that payment were always externalities from which he, like all presidents, would always remain profitably immune.

  12. This article quite effectively communicates the truth behind the Clintons’ recent anti-mass incarceration rhetoric: link to

    Bernie Sanders, in contrast, offers a genuine and clearly heartfelt vision of social justice at the cost of the 1% as opposed to being at the cost of the most historically, economically, and socially vulnerable in America.

  13. I’ve been telling everyone for decades that racism is the foundation of capitalist injustice, that it must be dealt with now. This morning we see headlines that Donald Trump has begun a bidding war among GOP candidates in calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment. The liars will say it’s just against the Mexicans, but in their extremist gatherings they will start talking about a final solution to the Black problem.

    The far right has had a fringe movement attacking the 13th Amendment for years. Once those two amendments are gone, there will be nothing left standing from the Civil War. MLK needed the de jure existence of those amendments to win his struggle. Now we’re looking at the law of the land regressing all the way back to Dred Scott. It means every accomplishment of progressives is written on sand, that they will not fight to make anything permanent, that there is no such thing as progress.

    THAT’S why Blacks must scream at Democrats. Why can’t Democrats get White people to MIND such an atrocity? The political system that lets cops gun down Blacks with impunity and lets millions of Whites literally say that Blacks collectively deserve it shows that we do not have progress in America. We simply alternate periods where things get better with periods where things get worse. Once there was a Black senator in Mississippi; a few years later his voters were disenfranchised, and it was all business as usual. THAT’S HAPPENING NOW! Obama will just become another forgotten Hiram Revels and all you White leftists will never elect a president again because this police terror will keep minorities voiceless.

    If you can’t see that another Jim Crow is being constructed that will mandate corporate rule under the guise of White minority rule, then the victims must do what others have done from Ireland to Vietnam.

  14. super30, i’m not entertaining any slippery slope arguments. Extrapolation isn’t my strong point.

    Romeru, my impression is a black person you meet on the street is more likely to be an economic conservative rather than a national socialist. I am convinced neoliberalism poses a threat to the less affluent, but I believe my black neighbors would be sceptical.

    super390, we can agree MLK would have been impotent without Malcolm X. Without leverage, you can’t negotiate.

    Mrs. Aronoff I’m gonna let you finish, but Kanye West is the biggest ass on the planet (still a genius producer though). These two women are asses. They are the so-called leaders of BLM for Seattle, but they can’t find 15 people to join them in protest?? And targeting the only candidate who will allow off-the-script interactions? I’m open to the message of BLM. These two primadonnas are a huge distraction.

    And Beyonce had the best guerrilla publicity stunt of all time!

  15. (and let’s not entertain any “Cancer made my life better” arguments. Even if the Sanders campaign reacts by being more engaged with black americans, it doesn’t make these two women any more repulsive.)

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