The Value of Protest
The Value of Protest
By Tim DeChristopher / commondreams.org

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.

The thing is, this specific protest was in honor of Sandra Bland, who had a job when she was arrested for not using a turn signal and died in custody.  In fact, she moved to Texas for her job, but her pursuit of a career didn’t save her.  On the other hand, the 31% of unemployed white high school graduates mentioned by Sanders don’t get killed by police at anywhere near the rate of the 51% of unemployed black high school graduates.  In retrospect, Bernie’s response to the BLM disruption looks like an exercise in avoiding the obvious fact that race matters.

Like Sanders, my tendency is to zoom out from the personal and look at things structurally and systemically instead.  When I think about anti-racism, I tend to focus more on changing institutionalized inequality than on challenging individual attitudes.  In the past I’ve worried that the BLM movement’s focus on the names of specific people killed by police might simplify the need to dismantle complex systems into a perspective that considers justice done when specific killer cops are prosecuted.  The most disappointing part about watching Sanders yesterday was the degree to which I recognized myself in him.

But the BLM protestors chanted “Say her name!” in reference to Sandra Bland because Bland’s particularity demonstrates that increased economic opportunities alone will not solve the problem.  We also have to actually confront racism.  Bernie never did say her name, and his failure to depart from his script to validate the particularity of Bland’s life is inseparable from his failure to really see the particular living black women standing right in front of him as the embodiment of everything his campaign strives to be.

I think Bernie Sanders can actually win the presidency, but to do so he needs the energy and grassroots organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement on his side.  It’s early enough in the campaign that with some serious reflection and humility, he can learn from this and earn the trust of the movement.  And importantly, when he is president, this learning experience will make him far better at dealing with the reality of racism and other kinds of oppression that plague our country.

The BLM protest revealed the deficit not only in Bernie’s campaign, but in the approach of folks like myself who would rather avoid the particular lived experience of individuals who suffer from oppression.  An exclusive wide-angle view on structures is just as much of an oversimplification as an exclusive narrow focus on individuals.  Like any oversimplification, it compromises our ability to find adequate solutions to real world problems.  Avoiding the particular also blinds us to our real allies when they are right in front of us.

Some might say that people like me could have been taught these lessons without disrupting a critical dialogue with Jose Antonio Vargas and possibly damaging Sanders’ campaign.  Maybe so.  But that would have required people like me and Bernie Sanders to really see and listen to these people, which was exactly the problem.  Part of the point is that the lived experience of black women is excluded from the public discourse.  It’s never going to be their turn to have their voices heard, so they have to create the opportunities to make their voices heard.  Protests are always criticized as being at the wrong time because those who need to protest are never the people writing the agenda.  That’s the value of protest.

Bernie Sanders rightly recognizes that all of us are increasingly excluded from the political discourse that shapes our country.  If his campaign is to realize it’s revolutionary potential, we would do all well to follow the lead of the women of Black Lives Matter who made their voices heard at Netroots Nation.


Tim DeChristopher is a climate activist and board member for the climate justice organization Peaceful Uprising.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 12,427 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 11,392 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 10,833 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 9,729 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 6,234 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 6,096 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Forest Man
16 min · 6,032 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 4,896 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 4,825 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 4,318 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 3,755 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 3,344 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 3,046 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 2,643 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 2,626 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 2,508 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
Do You Have Time to Love?
Thich Nhat Hanh · 2,319 views today · The greatest gift you can offer loved ones is your true presence.
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 2,094 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back From Cars
5 min · 1,879 views today · Modern cities are designed for cars. But the city of Barcelona is testing out an urban design trick that can give cities back to pedestrians.
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 1,778 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Value of Protest