Locally and nationally, progressive political blogs and social media threads have blown up over the last 48 hours in response to two #BLM activists shutting down presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ speech at a Social Security and MediCare anniversary rally Saturday afternoon in downtown Seattle. The debates have tended to center around the wisdom of the two activists’ tactic. Locally, a consensus seems to be emerging among activists that the whole thing was awesome, with the cries of Sanders defenders that he’s really pretty good on racial justice issues quickly receding.
But Sanders was never the point of this direct action. And I remain convinced of what I wrote in the immediate aftermath: that the action was tactically counter-productive to the #BLM movement. After all the arguments in support of the action, I remain unconvinced that this was the “successful” action that others are hailing. Success, for #BLM, isn’t measured by getting on the news or by launching feel-good rhetorical bombs, aka “truth-telling,” from stage. Most immediately, it means getting law enforcement officers (LEOs) to stop murdering people of color, especially African-Americans; and it means getting the justice system to hold LEOs accountable under the law when they commit such crimes.
The most generous possible interpretation is that Saturday’s action maybe, very indirectly, helped these goals through alerting the public that the issues (or at least, some of the activists) haven’t gone away in the year since Ferguson. That’s pretty tangential. At the same time, the choice of tactics and target very directly harmed the same movement. That – not the specific tactic of interrupting a presidential candidate’s speech – is why I still think it was a bad idea.
This latter train of criticism to my earlier post was summed up by a pithy Facebook comment from an old friend and activist colleague: “You used to eat the state. What happened?” And the answer is, nothing happened, to my beliefs anyway, at all. No matter how sympathetic I am to their motives, when I think allies have erred, I’ve always been willing to say so. Most notoriously, I took a huge amount of shit in 1999 for very publicly ripping the nihilists whose minor acts of vandalism during the anti-WTO protests became the public’s justification for a week-long police riot seen around the world, and the entire arc of repressive anti-democratic police tactics at large international gatherings ever since. And the burgeoning fair trade movement in the US, not to mention the vaunted labor-environmental alliance of those demonstrations, promptly died. My reaction wasn’t because I was philosophically opposed to property destruction – it was because at that time and place it was both idiotic and insanely counterproductive.
Saturday’s misstep wasn’t of that scale (thank goodness), but it was born of the same self-indulgence and lack of movement self-discipline, a sloppiness that some in other parts of the world would never be tolerated because it gets activists killed. (We’re not there – the US isn’t a true police state, not yet – but we’re on our way, and activist movements had better get real about that. #BLM, with its roots in issues identical to those of the Black Panther Party of a half-century ago, should know this better than most.)
A lot of arguments have been raised online in the last 48 hours, and for what it’s worth, it’s been an interesting discussion. Let’s dispense with the more frivolous arguments first:
Bernie Sanders was relevant to Saturday only as a media hook. The activists themselves acknowledged this by refusing to negotiate on-stage with Sanders’ people, who wanted to try to find a way for both sides to speak. It was about media attention, not Sanders’ platform or how sympathetic he might be or whether he marched with Dr. King or anyone else.
(Sanders, it should be noted, was a spectacularly poor target for a couple of different reasons, but I’ll get to that.)
Let’s circle back to the #BLM movement’s immediate goals. How did Saturday’s action lend to stopping police killings or change prosecutorial and judicial practices? With apologies to his fans, it’s very unlikely that Bernie Sanders will be the next President of the United States. It’s even less likely that he’ll be its next Attorney General. Instead, odds are overwhelming that he’ll continue to be what he is: a politically isolated backbencher, one that doesn’t even sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a US Senate whose agenda is controlled by the Republican Party. Statistically, even the number of people in the US who will ever hear him speak (let alone read a…zzz….zzzzz…campaign platform) is vanishingly small. His ability to stop extrajudicial LEO executions is near zero. His ability to inspire others to do so is limited at best.
Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of comments to the effect that Saturday’s event was “successful” because progressive white activists have been talking about it. Again: So what? Progressive white activists, even in a liberal bubble like Seattle, have almost no ability to win elections on our own. We’ve been completely unable so far, on our own or in coalitions, to reign in even the worst excesses of SPD’s decades-long reign of thuggery.
The people who do matter in that struggle, politically speaking, are local police commanders, prosecutors’ offices, judges, and especially the elected officials charged with overseeing them. Those folks are susceptible, perhaps, to pressure from #BLM and its white supporters – but only if they’re already sympathetic to the undeniable moral clarity of preventing violent criminal acts and holding the perpetrators of those acts accountable even when they’re cops.
Therein lies the problem with Saturday’s action. Two of them, actually.
Do you know how those folks around the country – as opposed to people on progressive political threads – saw Saturday’s news from Seattle? “Nation’s most leftist major political figure shut down by activists who don’t think he’s leftist enough.” By choosing Sanders as their target, Saturday’s activists did two things. First, over the past year, #BLM’s targets have been direct, not symbolic. Even the expressions of rage and protest violence in places like Ferguson and Baltimore were understood in the context of the racist, corrupt police departments literally on the scene. Targetting a presidential candidate without even a plausible potential ability to influence #BLM issues is several steps removed from the moral authority that comes with a proximate target. Second, by targeting someone who is already an outlier in American politics, the public perception of #BLM shifted from a set of issues everyone, including the President, has had to at least rhetorically address, toward one that by the definition of the activists involved on Saturday is so fringe that even an outlier like Sanders isn’t “pure” enough to meet #BLM’s demands. By seizing the stage on Saturday, two young activists helped self-marginalize #BLM – and with it, made it that much more difficult to pressure elected officials and judges and to get law enforcement and judicial institutions around the country to change their practices. Officials in cities around the country have nightmares about being the Next Ferguson. They sleep just fine dismissing the rantings of a few isolated, powerless activists. If #BLM as a movement devolves into the latter, it’s dead. Nobody can afford that, least of all the men and women in the sights of tomorrow’s racist cops.
(Oh, and the bit about calling out audience members for their white supremacism? It might be true, and it surely felt good to say it, but how does that help recruit peopto ramp up local political pressure? That’s the sort of stunt agent provocateurs pull for a reason.)
Happily, the news cycle moves quickly, and in a few days the incident – if not the impressions it leaves – will mostly be forgotten outside Seattle. But progressives of all types fall into this trap too easily: doing direct actions that are emotionally gratifying or get media coverage, at the expense of long-term strategic positioning. The forces arrayed in favor of institutional racism and omnicide are powerful enough already. Let’s not make their job any easier.