UPDATE: Activist Talib Kweli went on the Bill Maher Show and agreed, bringing in even more insight on why BLM Seattle was successful after interrupting Sanders. He and Jennifer Granholm, Senior Adviser to Correct the Record, point out some of the misconceptions and even further victories that arose from the incident:
When “Black Lives Matter” Seattle co-founder Marissa Johnson and a few allies interrupted Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event last week, the reaction was swift and furious. The Stranger’s Charles Mudede argued that BLM activists needed smarter tactics, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan outright called it “stupid,” and even other Black Lives Matter activists have signed a petition calling for the Seattle activists to apologize.
Yet as Marissa Johnson deftly demonstrated on an interview with MSNBC, the activists knew exactly what they were doing.
This isn’t the first time Black Lives Matter activists have interrupted public events, in fact they are probably best known for it. They interrupted a speech by another candidate, Martin O’Malley, at the progressive Netroots Nation conference, attempted to interrupt a speech by Hillary Clinton, and have disrupted public spaces on numerous occasions.
Some of their tactics, from an activist’s perspective, are questionable. It remains to be seen what shutting down freeways and creating racially-oriented safe spaces at protests have done to actually advance their cause of racial justice. They have been one of the most controversial nonviolent groups in recent memory, and a group I’ve personally criticized in the past.
But interrupting Bernie Sanders, contrary to popular opinion, was brilliant.
The reason is the first lesson we teach SI clients. Politicians, regardless of their values or ideals, are not regular people. They are not influenced by personal conversations and they are rarely influenced by a minority opinion. Politicians, particularly in Washington D.C., live in a proverbial bubble, and even if they might want to listen to their constituents the pressures in the legislature are often too much for any elected official.
Politicians, at least in the United States, also live and die on the 51%. They must appeal to 51% of the voters each election, or they will lose their job, their reputation, and likely their ability to thrive in their community. That means even if an elected official likes a minority idea, they will not take any action on it until they believe that minority has the ability to flip enough voters to represent the 51%.
However, it is important to pay attention to the caveats of this number. This is not 51% of the population, it is 51% of those who will actually go to the polls. So, 3%, plus one.
The Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership breaks down this number perfectly:
People Percentage of Victory
100%, all people 50%, plus 1
70%, eligible to vote (excludes aliens, felons, minors) 35%, plus 1
40%, registered to vote (approximately 60% of eligible) 20%, plus 1
20%, vote on election day (50% of registered voters) 10%, plus 1
7%, almost always vote Republican
7%, almost always vote Democrat
6%, swing votes 3%, plus 1
On average, in the United States, if an organization, a constituency, or an activist group, can represent 3% of the people who might vote for that candidate, they have the 51% necessary to control almost any action that politician takes.
What does this mean?
Effective organizations and activists go after the politicians closest to their platform.
Many critics of Marissa suggested she go after and interrupt GOP candidates. Black Lives Matter activists don’t represent 3% of their constituents. Black lives Matter is rarely accepted in the GOP, and would be wasting their breath. Some other suggested they go after Hillary Clinton. While they certainly could, they may not have that 3% necessary to flip her positions.
But with Bernie Sanders, BLM activists have that 3%. Many of Bernie’s supporters are already sympathetic to racial justice issues, and it takes comparatively little effort to encourage them to support a specific action plan for racial justice in the candidate’s platform. And guess what? They got it.
Within days of the confrontation, the Sanders campaign unveiled a racial justice platform. In his next campaign speech in Portland, Ore, attended by over 26,000, he opened with his new platform on racial justice. For the cost of planning the takeover of the stage, BLM activists changed a major Presidential candidate’s platform.
But they didn’t do this on accident. Here’s what Ms. Johnson had to say in her MSNBC interview:
INTERVIEWER: So…what candidate do you support? What candidate speaks most to the changes your organization feels are necessary at this point?
MARISSA: “I personally don’t support any of the candidates, and I think its a false narrative to say that you just have to settle for what the system has given us. No matter what your politics are, across the board, Americans have said continually continually, our politicians don’t work for us, Congress doesn’t work for us, the system we’re in doesn’t work for us.
So I don’t affirm any part of the system because I don’t expect any politicians to do work. Instead, I’m really interested in getting Americans to question why do we settle for a system that doesn’t work for us when our lives are literally on the line. So I think every politician needs to show up, needs to show their platform, and no politician should feel safe from the criticism of Black Lives Matter.
Potential public outrage will keep many grassroots leaders from directly and clearly challenging allied elected officials. But BLM activists knew that the public didn’t matter as much as the voting constituency, that supposed “allied” politicians are easier to keep in check than enemies, and that they had the numbers needed to change the Sanders platform.
Black Lives Matter Seattle won on the national stage. The question to activist groups around the world is whether or not you’ll let politeness, decorum, and even public outrage, get between you and major political victories. Or whether you’ll understand the 3%.
Dan Johnson is the President of the Solutions Institute, empowering activists to take power from politicians. The opinions here are those of the author.