A Conversation About Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders

Were activists justified when they interrupted the candidate at a Seattle rally?

Elaine Thompson / AP

In “A Tough Weekend for Black Lives Matter,” I wrote about the members of the social justice movement who interrupted a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, drawing some boos from the crowd and ultimately causing the cancellation of the presidential candidate’s speech. My article posited that although police reform is a just and vital cause that ought to be pursued with urgency, the activists’ treatment of Sanders was a strategic mistake, especially given that his long-shot campaign aligns much better with the demands of Black Lives Matter than Hillary Clinton’s ever will.

A reader, Martha Tesema, wrote a particularly thoughtful dissent. “As a young, black female who lives in Seattle,” she began, “I wanted to share my perspective because it’s likely that you haven’t heard directly from a point of view like mine before.” We agreed that journalists are, as she put it, “gatekeepers of different perspectives,” and she consented to an email interview in which we would attempt to set forth her perspective on Black Lives Matter and flesh out why it is that the two of us disagree. She supports the activist movement but is not affiliated with it herself.

This version has been lightly edited for clarity.

Conor Friedersdorf: Martha, you wrote that far from thinking that Black Lives Matter had a tough weekend, you were celebrating its action in Seattle. What’s your view of that day?

Martha Tesema: Thanks for asking about my perspective. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the protest. But I’ve been celebrating what Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford did. As a black woman in this city, I think it was incredibly brave.

It disrupted the status-quo and kick-started needed conversations that I was desperate to have with strangers, friends, and co-workers. People have this idea of Seattle as a utopia. And yes, it’s a beautiful city on many levels. But despite how liberal and progressive Seattle claims to be, it’s clear from the reactions to the protest that there’re still many who are blind to a variety of issues locally and nationally.

I'm grateful for Marissa and Mara. I’m glad they pushed some buttons.

Friedersdorf: We agree that the issues raised by Black Lives Matter are important, and I’m eager to hear more about your experience of Seattle. But first I want to ask about something that one of the protesters said in response to boos from the crowd. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives,” she said, “but you did it for me.” When you wrote, “it’s clear from the reactions to the protest that there’s still many who are blind to a variety of issues locally and nationally,” were you referring to the same moment? I have no doubt that many in Seattle are unaware of flaws in the way that their city is policed and other unjust policies that disproportionately burden black people. At the same time, I don’t think the boos from the crowd illustrate that its members are racist, and I suspect some people upset about the BLM takeover aren’t blind to the movement’s issues.

When I try to put myself in the place of some of the people booing, I imagine a woman who rearranged her schedule, hired a babysitter, and traveled an hour to the Westlake neighborhood to see a candidate she regards as a potential savior for the country. This might be the only opportunity she ever has to see him speak in person. So she stays on her feet in a crowd of people who think life will be better for the working class and the poor if only they can elect this man––and then, when it’s time for him to speak, to deliver a social-democratic message that no one else of prominence is articulating, he is upstaged. The candidate whose voice they perceive as being constantly disadvantaged by a corporate-controlled media and the influx of special-interest money in politics is silenced again. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’d have booed anyone who did that. Maybe this hypothetical woman believes Sanders is the only one who will help her husband on disability, or avert catastrophic climate change, or raise the wage that leaves her just short of rent. And now some unknown person is thwarting him. The upset almost anyone would feel in that situation strikes me as the most likely explanation for most of the boos.

Then again, you live in Seattle. And you saw the aftermath with a local’s eye.

Why did you think the response to the protest revealed something particular to Black Lives Matter and its issues? Do you think the Sanders supporters at the rally had any legitimate complaint, even if you think that the protest was, on balance, a good thing?

Tesema: You write,I don’t think the boos from the crowd illustrate that its members were racist.” When people are silenced––when a “progressive, liberal” audience attempts to silence a marginalized people––they are not acting in solidarity.

And I am not only talking about the Westlake event, but the broader political conversation happening in this election. No matter how down people say they are with the cause, when they act like being slightly inconvenienced is more important than the lives of people of color, that suggests they probably never truly supported the movement. Marissa, Mara, and allies were not invited. They forced themselves on stage, so the reaction of the crowd was instinctive and understandable, to a certain degree. But if we look deeper at why they chose this provocative way of approaching this Seattle crowd, it says a lot about the urgency of Black Lives Matter and the lack of awareness among this progressive, liberal audience.

I'm assuming your hypothetical woman is white because Seattle is a predominately white city, and Bernie Sanders supporters are also predominately white. I get that this woman may be upset, but she can Google his remarks later. And, hypothetically, if she personally does not have access to Google, she can go to the library and access different perspectives on the speech that would have been given by Sanders.

But, I’m not concerned with hypotheticals.

Ultimately, it's not a life or death issue for her. Of course, inconveniences are annoying. But what is the worst that is going to happen to this Sanders supporter? I'm more concerned with what is going to happen to young women of color who are silent.

The stakes are higher for women of color.

Unless the status quo is challenged, people will not pay attention. Historically, radical action has created essential space to address these issues. (But was this even that radical?) I think the reactions are just as important to analyze. The booing, the yelling, the chanting—they all show that just because you are a progressive, liberal voter does not mean you are above racism. I get that lot of people put hours into organizing this amazing event to celebrate important services. All those Sanders supporters standing for hours in the sun—maybe their feet are sore or they have a sunburn. But how can I value these inconveniences over what is happening across the country now? I do not see any legitimate complaints, just trivial ones. When you look at those booing in the crowd, they are reflecting white fragility, a means of defense against a public attack on their morality. This is an emotionally charged issue that is hard to convey to someone who hasn’t lived life while black. The negative reaction is proof that achieving racial justice may not relevant to this progressive, liberal crowd. And that is what’s so troubling.

Friedersdorf: Isn’t “proof” a strong word given that we’re talking about the internal thoughts of others? I worry that you’re writing off potential allies prematurely. Imagine attending a Black Lives Matter event where everyone is eager to hear from DeRay McKesson. On the cusp of his speech, the stage is rushed by a group of Muslim Americans who seize the mic and demand four minutes of silence for Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old killed in America’s drone war (a life-or-death issue). Some BLM audience members begin to boo the interruption.

A Muslim activists says, “This proves your bigotry.” DeRay McKesson never does speak. I'd expect some Black Lives Matter activists to be annoyed by that exchange.

Would that prove that they care more about being inconvenienced than dead Pakistani children? I don’t think that follows. Nor would I characterize them as “attempting to silence an oppressed people,” not if strangers arrived at their event unannounced and specifically demanded their silence. When you write that the progressives in Seattle were “attempting to silence an oppressed people,” I want to acknowledge the many places where abusive policing rises to the level of oppressing black people as a class; I’ve written about conditions in Ferguson and Baltimore, and Stop and Frisk in New York City. And yet, when two black women seize a stage at a progressive event, I would find it offensive if the immediate, reflexive reaction of white progressives in the crowd amounted to, “Oh, don’t object! Those are women of color. They must therefore be both oppressed and speaking to us as representatives of oppressed people.” That would strike me as toxic white superiority disguising itself as deference––“good progressives” prejudging black people as inferiors to be pitied rather than equals to engage as singular individuals.

We’re in total agreement about the urgency of efforts to reform policing and avert unjustified killings. The Washington Post just reported that “so far this year, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police––one every nine days,” and that “black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the population.” Dramatically reducing those deaths, as well as the other 60 percent of unarmed people killed, is totally possible. Cops here kill more unarmed people in a month than the combined totals of whole European nations for years. As a writer who’s urged policing reform before Black Lives Matter began, I’m grateful for the attention they’ve brought to the issue and awed by the courage some members have shown protesting militarized police empowered to use lethal force. I wish Sanders and his progressive fans, as well as every other candidate in both parties, pushed for sweeping reforms daily.

But I don’t see how to function in a pluralistic democracy––or profitably cooperate with people who believe in policing reform but count it a lesser priority––if people with shared priorities on policing shut down the events of potential allies because the issue we care about isn’t the one they’re discussing. What if everyone with a life-or-death cause did that? All public events would begin only to be interrupted by a series of earnest people who very reasonably want the nation to grapple more fully with innocents being slaughtered in Syria; highway deaths; catastrophic climate change; drug-resistant bacteria; lead poisoning in poor neighborhoods; earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest, where an imminent temblor is expected to kill thousands. Who is to say how best to prioritize these life-or-death issues, or what degree of attention where would save the most lives?

I’m not saying direct action is never justified, any more than I’d say that it’s never okay to interrupt someone in a conversation. But isn’t it also important to preserve a norm where political movements get to hold events where they can decide what to talk about? That norm best protects the rights of marginalized groups from being silenced by powerful adversaries. (Black Lives Matter would be ill-served by a norm where the relative ability to seize stages by force determines who speaks.) If an attention-grabbing moment was required, what about an action that didn’t come at the expense of a nascent, fragile political movement waging its own unlikely struggle for attention? At least that’s how I reacted, despite being someone who is on board with much more of the BLM agenda than the average American and doesn’t identify at all with the Sanders movement. I respect that your reaction was different; I’m glad it gave you cause for celebration and gave rise to this conversation; and I'm still prepared to be persuaded that this action had salutary effects in Seattle that I can’t see. But I worry that more of the same from Black Lives Matter will harm, not help, an agenda much of which I want to advance. I know I’m not alone in that concern. Maybe I’m wrong. Part of the idea here is to lay out my logic so that you can go after any holes in it, so have at it!

Tesema: I understand where you trying to come from. As I said previously, I’m sure some audience members were annoyed and reacted instinctively on a human level.

But history and power need to be taken into account.

Visually, it’s a very powerful thing to see two women of color upstage a white man. The reflexive reaction of a crowd that understands their whiteness as a privilege and also understands the historical context of black lives in America would, I hope, take that into account and transform it into solidarity rather than pity.

Why does understanding a marginalized voice have to equal pity?

With respect to your hypothetical Muslim Americans, what would they gain from interrupting a movement that doesn’t have a political leader or weight in the issue at hand? There’s a level of allyship between organizations comprised of those who are often pushed to the margins. And the other activist causes that you bring up––worrying that they might use the same tactics––do use protest, historically and currently.

Immigration activists have repeatedly protested political officials. ACT UP shut down Wall Street. Climate change activists directly challenged Shell Oil. All these issues are important and valid. I think we can agree no value system exists that will allow us to rank these life-or-death causes. Police brutality and the way our institutions affect the quality of black lives matters to me more than it may matter to others. That does not mean I cannot and do not also support students, for example, who march against universities demanding their institutions divest from fossil fuels.

But preserving a norm that has been beneficial to only a portion of the population is a norm that should not be preserved. Preserving a norm that has a history of largely silencing those on the margins is not a norm I am willing to go back towards.

Whose norm is this that we’re talking about? At whose expense?

In regards to this action coming at the cost of another, I don’t buy that it hurt a “nascent, fragile political movement.” If anything, hasn’t it helped Sanders? His campaign language and actions have become more inclusive, therefore better. In Portland, the next stop on his West Coast jaunt after Seattle, he met with members of Don’t Shoot Portland. The Bernie Sanders campaign has grown stronger, and he has definitely gotten a lot more clicks out of it. However, this is beyond Sanders’ run for the White House. This is about changing the political conversation as a whole not only to include black lives and black voices, but to bring attention to the urgency of the situation at hand. I have no doubt that Black Lives Matter is taking action in different cities without making headlines. If it takes a confrontational action to trigger necessary conversations on a larger scale, so be it.

For a lot of people, asking for change is not on the plate any longer.

Friedersdorf: I want to keep listening here. You’ve alluded to problems in Seattle and expressed hope that Black Lives Matter will create space to address them. What should we know about local conditions there? What changes would you like to see? If every candidate invited BLM activists to speak at an event what message should they?

Tesema: I do appreciate that you want to talk less and listen more. I think that is an often neglected but critical component of allyship. But doesn’t that also extend to critiquing how a black liberation movement should operate? It’s not up to me to speculate what should be said by a BLM activist. That’s a message that’s unique to each rally, each candidate, and each city. And it’s not just a matter of what BLM should say at every event. Black Lives Matter is just a portion of the overall liberation movement.

In Seattle, the action allowed room for conversations to happen online and off. I’ve seen a sharp increase. I engaged the other day at a bakery with an elderly woman who hadn’t understood the intentions behind the events that took place here. White progressives across my timelines are engaging in dialogue with each other.

That’s interesting to see.

You don’t often see people critique their privilege and analyze race. The space has been created for the conversations to be elevated, and the sense of urgency has grown.

Seattle sits on Duwamish land, and yet the Duwamish were recently denied federal recognition.There’s an affordable housing crisis in the city that’s pushing away many people of color outside of historically black neighborhoods, and contributing to homelessness. Rent is skyrocketing. Millions of dollars are about to be spent on a new youth jail, rather than implementing services to support vulnerable youth and stop juvenile incarcerations. A proposal to shut down hookah lounges unfairly, without evidence, blames an East African population for violence and strips the spaces and livelihoods of Seattle immigrants. These are just some of the many issues that are prevalent in the city that need to be changed.

Rather than critiquing the Black Lives Matter strategy, what are your thoughts on the aftermath of the protests? It’s been a week and I’m curious to see what you think.

Friedersdorf: I agree that the Bernie Sanders campaign appears to be better off than when we began this exchange and that it is paying closer attention to Black Lives Matter. I assume they’re spending more on event security, too. As noted, I do think that BLM cost itself some goodwill, though I doubt that the single action in Seattle will prove hugely beneficial or costly by itself. I do think the movement should wrestle more with what tactics are most effective going forward. What would the consequences of shutting down another Bernie Sanders event be? More generally, what are the most important obstacles that they have to overcome? To me, they’re most likely to grow stronger if they seek out constructive criticism. How better to discern a movement's flaws or to discover and rebut unfair critiques? If you perceived a flaw that was hurting their success, I’d hate for you to deprive them of your insight because you feel that it isn’t the place of an ally to criticize.

And you're right: One needn't pity a marginalized person or group to hear, understand, or show solidarity with them. But does that invalidate my concern? A black woman at a political rally might be a poor person without any ability to make her voice heard ... or an MBA student at Harvard ... or a columnist at a major newspaper with 100,000 Twitter followers. Her politics might align with social justice progressives or Ben Carson or Rudy Giuliani or Donald Trump. White progressives can respect the individuality of black people; or they can reflexively prejudge black strangers as marginalized or speaking for those who are; but they cannot do both. Automatically giving over their mics to any black protester who unexpectedly jumps on stage at an event might be rationalized in the academic language of “privilege,” but I worry that white progressives would start thinking,  “We wouldn’t normally let someone just interrupt, but in this case we'll use that lesser standard of behavior we have for black people.” I’ve seen too many white progressives condescend to blacks and Latinos to think that their prejudgments are harmless.

Don’t misunderstand me. Seeking out marginalized voices is an obligation, and black people like the ones in Ferguson, who’ve suffered under oppressive policing for so long, certainly qualify. I just think there are better ways to let them speak, or to address their plight and needs, than transgressing against the norm that people can assemble and speak without being shut down. And I think you’re wrong in characterizing that norm as having “a history of largely silencing those on the margin.” I’d argue that few norms are more important or helpful to marginalized people and voices than strong protections of assembly, speech and the ability to exercise them.

But maybe you see it differently? You’ve offered a lot of thoughtful fodder, and I've no doubt your next reply will be provide much to reflect on too. With huge thanks for joining me in this exchange, we’ll have this last entry of yours be the last word.

Tesema: Addressing the big picture, I agree that the single action will not be costly by itself. And like we’ve acknowledged, conversations and demonstrations directly related to the event are taking place, so the benefits have been apparent. Just the other day, a group of mostly white demonstrators held an open dialogue on race at Westlake, the site of the BLM action. If a similar form of protest happens, I unfortunately can see how that may attract negative attention. But I also don’t think BLM is concerned with goodwill. Whose goodwill are we talking about? This goes back to the urgency of the situation. One thing to keep in mind here is that given the urgency and the seriousness of the cause, maintaining “goodwill” is not a priority. If “goodwill” was lost, then true “goodwill” wasn’t there to begin with.

I believe the message was received loud and clear (specifically in Seattle) but that doesn’t mean there is not more work to be done. To me, there’s no indication they’re going to continue shutting down Bernie Sanders events. Like many have said, politicians should be disrupted throughout this election process, whether that comes in the form of a protest or in a quieter manner. Similar to how this movement is beyond politicians, it is also is beyond BLM. Various people have different tactics they deem appropriate and effective in their communities across the country.

In theory, seeking out constructive criticism is a great idea. But what are we critiquing, Black Lives Matter as organization or the entire black liberation movement? Someone who is not directly targeted by these injustices is entitled to their opinion, as everyone is entitled to their opinion. But someone who is not affected cannot personally understand the motivation of the movement. What is their frame of reference to critique the ways this movement is engaging to bring about change in communities of color? Do they have the standing to criticize? It feels as if it is a manifestation of privilege to be able to critique a movement that’s not your own.

Rather than critiquing, I feel listening is more effective.

In regards to prejudgements, I believe you can respect someone and still recognize they are marginalized as a result of a systematic failure. But that respect should come first in the form of acknowledgement of the individuality of that person.

At the action in Westlake, no one gave them the mic. They took it, symbolically, because no one is “letting” black people do anything in the face of this pressing crisis. I agree, it’s incredibly problematic thinking if white progressives are reflexively prejudging; I see using language such as “letting” as problematic with moving forward with race relations. Any protester, in my opinion, is not behaving in a “lesser standard of behavior” either. They’re working against a system in the way they know will bring attention to their plight. Activists who protest may “give up on the right and split the left,” as you said. But if that split is necessary to reveal racial tensions within the left, then it's worth it to collectively move forward. Yes, white progressives condescending to blacks and Latinos is one of the core reason for the struggle. That is what I see all these movements collectively pushing to overcome.

I think we’re talking about two different “norms.” You are speaking on the norm of the right to assemble. I’m using broad strokes and speaking in regards of people of color within the historical context of this country. Protections of assembly and speech are critical. There’s no arguing with that. But traditionally, voices other than the white men have been pushed aside, and I’d argue that that has been the norm in this country longer than it has not. Everyone should have the right to speak and address their circumstances, and beyond that, it should be more than just an obligation to have equal representation and an equal chance at a full life. That should be the norm. If that was the norm, it wouldn’t be necessary to “let them speak” in a fashion that adheres to the rules. But it’s not, and that’s why the fight will continue.

To tie it all together:

It’s crucial that these conversations take place at this time in our history. As a young journalist of color, it’s at times difficult to read stories that don’t take your point of view into account. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to engage in this dialogue and your effort to pursue my perspective. This movement does not have the option of failing. The fight may be long and complicated but it's a fight that needs to happen right now.

As  we were finishing our conversation about the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle, activists with the group tried to interrupt a Hillary Clinton rally but were thwarted by her security. Later, they held a private meeting with the Democratic candidate.

Video of the exchange was posted online.