Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Thoughts from a White Man who Watched Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley Fail on#BlackLivesMatter

[Originally published on Medium - please give that version a rec and a share!]

You may have heard about the Sanders/O’Malley/Vargas presidential town hall last week that was interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter protestors. I was there, and now that I’m back on an actual computer instead of mobile, I’d like to share my thoughts.

[I had just finished writing this when a friend shared this article from Tia Oso, whose voice is far more important than mine here and you should read it first: “I Am the Black Woman Who Interrupted the Netroots Presidential Town Hall, and This Is Why.”]

On the one hand, one could definitely criticize the protestors’ tactics, as many have done. You can say that interrupting is rude and that discourse should be more respectful, that O’Malley and Sanders are allies of the movement and it’s counterproductive to embarrass them, or that they should have made their point and then sat down so that the audience could hear a rare event they were excited for.

All good points — and all incorrect, for three reasons.

1) I am a straight, cis, well-educated white man, as are many of the others who have criticized these protestors. I have more privilege than almost anyone in the history of the planet. That doesn’t mean my life is easy or that I don’t face real challenges and experience true pain — but it does mean that the system is stacked in my favor. I’m not 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police or twice as likely to be denied a mortgage; there will be generational transfer of wealth; I’m on the healthy side of the pay gap. So here’s the thing — who the hell am I to tell the oppressed, the families of people literally dying in the streets at the hands of the state, how they can and can’t speak out?  
Yes, their tactics could have been better, but to focus on that misses the point entirely. I don’t get to tell them how they can respond to their pain.

2) For voices on the outside, being loud is the only thing that works. People who lead movements with inside-voices rarely effect change. White politicians can demand that all activists, including the black and brown ones, speak to them quietly, but the few don’t get heard by the many if they don’t speak up over the din. That’s why we’ve seen only small progress over the past few decades, and if the oppressed don’t speak out, they’ll continue to suffer without the progress they need.

When we say “Don’t interrupt! Be civil!” We’re saying “Keep doing what you’ve always done,” which means keep getting the same results. No, sitting at a lunch counter and denying that small-business owner the revenue from a white customer, even though that’s illegal, is what gets noticed and starts to shift the culture.

3) Most importantly, the protest WORKED. People are still talking about this event days after the fact. Hillary Clinton put out a forceful statement on black lives matter, which she wouldn’t have otherwise had to do, and we learned things about O’Malley and Sanders that we wouldn’t have from a normal interview.

When asked about systemic racism and black, O’Malley’s reply included “white lives matter.” That told me more about him than answers to ten more questions from Vargas could have possibly done. The Sanders, when asked about an issue he doesn’t usually address, refused to deviate from a limited set of talking points about job creation and free tuition. He sounded like a Bush-era Republican screaming “TAX CUTS!” no matter what the question — never mind that without paying attention to systemic racism, new policies almost inevitably benefit the majority more.

Initially I thought O’Malley’s remarks were worse, but at least he did listen to the protestors while Sanders fumed at them. Then Sanders kept digging his hole deeper by cancelling all meetings for the rest of the day, while O’Malley kept his plans to go on a black radio show and sat through a dressing down, which is not easy to do, and later apologized. You can say he didn’t have a choice, but contrast it to Sanders who took his ball and went home, showing a thin skin, giant ego, and limited issue profile.

You can say the protestors failed in their tactics, but O’Malley and Sanders failed even more. Had the activists not stormed the proceedings, we would have heard Sanders continue to repeat the same talking points over and over no matter what he was asked, we would have continued to hear O’Malley drone on more about his record than his vision, and Clinton would have ignored the event. Oppressed voices were heard.

I don’t have a choice — no matter what I might otherwise think of the tactics, I have to support Tia Oso, Patrisse Cullors, and the voices of #BlackLivesMatter.

Three more articles worth reading about the town hall: