As a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, my first reaction to hearing about Saturday’s Black Lives Matter protest at Netroots Nation was disappointment. This looks bad, I thought. Bad for Bernie, who is the only presidential candidate with any chance of challenging structural injustice. And bad for Black Lives Matter, who could easily be interpreted as shutting down progressive discussions about immigration and economic inequality to make people focus on their priorities. I’ve had my share of mistakes during protests, as have all the activists I respect most, so I certainly had some sympathy. But I thought their protest was just that: a mistake.
Then I watched the video of Sanders responding to the protest, or should I say, failing to respond and instead just speaking over and past them. He tried to just continue with his stump speech and seemed annoyed with the disruption. Several times he looked at moderator Jose Antonio Vargas as if he expected Vargas to control these women, once asking, “Are you in charge here?” The closest he came to discussing policing issues directly was mentioning his success with community policing in Burlington, VT, a city that was pretty much all white and pretty much irrelevant to the discussion of racist policing.
As black women, those activists are people who have always been systematically locked out of the public discourse, and they were making their voices heard even if it ruffled some feathers. In theory, Bernie’s campaign platform is all about the way ordinary citizens have been locked out of the political discourse and the need to make those voices heard. But when the very thing he says he is looking for appeared right in front of him, he didn’t see it. As my dad says, if it was a snake it would have bit him. And this time, it did.
Others have written thoughtful reflections on what this protest meant for challenging white privilege. The value for me personally was in what the protest exposed in Bernie Sanders, and by extension, myself. When asked directly about white supremacy and police violence against people of color, Sanders responded by talking about fixing the economic system and providing more jobs. He didn’t explicitly connect unemployment with getting killed by police, but the implication was that if a black person doesn’t have a job, we can pretty well expect that he’ll get gunned down by a cop. Bernie was focused on Big Ideas, and derailing that to talk about one woman, or even one certain segment of the population, seemed like a frustrating distraction.