On Saturday, Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak to a crowd of thousands of supporters in a Seattle park. He never did; the event was shut down after a handful of protesters disrupted it in the name of “Black Lives Matter.” This was remarkably dumb.
Some caveats up front: 1) “Black Lives Matter,” like “Occupy,” is not a formal group with strict membership requirements. It is a banner, an overarching cause, a general proclamation of a set of political beliefs that can be picked up by anyone who cares to invoke its name. The actions of a few people should not, therefore, be used to try to tarnish that entire cause. 2) There are already plenty of conspiracy theories circulating in lefty circles about the group of protesters who disrupted the event, and their true motivations, and what they hoped to accomplish. I do not want to dive into a sea of unprovable suppositions, or overgeneralize about a broad cause. There have already been many tortured op-eds by progressives trying to painstakingly reconcile what happened. The fact is that this is not the first time that Bernie Sanders has been driven from the stage by Black Lives Matter protesters. I simply want to talk about the wisdom of doing this.
It is stupid, don’t do it.
Is “Black Lives Matter,” drawing attention as it does to institutional racism, racist police practices, and other pervasive instances of racism in American society, a legitimate cause? Of course it is. It is perfectly appropriate for BLM to wave its banner in rallies, in protest marches, and in city halls. It is appropriate to wave its banner in neighborhoods, in meeting halls, in the media, and in the streets. It is even, I would argue, appropriate for protesters to stand up and raise their voices and be disruptive at campaign rallies for political candidates who are acting to reinforce and support the sort of racism that they are campaigning against.
Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, who spits venom about “illegals” pouring into America to rape innocent women, could use a good Black Lives Matter protest. Almost every Republican presidential candidate, in fact—who stumble over themselves competing to build a bigger wall on the border and who unerringly back the police state in word and deed—could use a good Black Lives matter protest. As could most Republican senators, and state governors, and a host of mayors and city council members and sheriffs.
But Bernie Sanders? Bernie Sanders? Bernie Sanders, of all presidential candidates, is the one that you choose to target on the issue of America’s structural racism? Bernie Sanders is the most progressive serious presidential candidate, and the most liberal, and the most vocal and wise on the issue of America’s entrenched and widening economic inequality. If you truly care about such inequality, you should be planning to vote for Bernie Sanders. And should the Black Lives Matter movement care about economic inequality? Of course. The average white household in America has 16 times the wealth of the average black household. No group in America suffers from our nation’s economic inequality more than black people. Further, closing the racial wealth gap is probably the single most effective thing that any politician could do to help advance the cause of ending structural racism in America. This is because promoting progressive economic policies that work against the extreme concentration of wealth in small groups of people is something that politicians can actually do that has actual real world effects on racial inequality. “Giving nice speeches” is an example of a thing that politicians can do that tends to have little if any real world effect on racial inequality. I guarantee you that there are Democratic (and even some Republican) presidential candidates who are far more polished and smooth politicians than Bernie Sanders who are capable of giving speeches on race in America that sound far more pleasing and life-affirming to listen to than anything that Bernie Sanders says in his own plainspoken growl. And those candidates, who are heavily influenced by Wall Street donors, will go on to do very little to close the racial wealth gap in America, unlike Bernie Sanders.
So the question is: do you want someone who will do the things that will actually address the issues you care about? Or do you want to be pandered to better?
Many on the left find it hard to come out and say “this was stupid,” because they support both Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a misperception of the political landscape. Believing that a small group of angry young protesters did something that was not well thought out need not make you feel guilty or racist; rash and counterproductive things are what young people do. Screaming Bernie Sanders offstage is dumb because you support Black Lives Matter. For those perceptive enough to separate pretty slogans from actual policy prescriptions, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is the candidate most aligned with the group’s values. Stifling his voice only helps his opponents.
Go shout at someone who deserves it.