There’s a thin line in politics between brilliant and stupid and the BlackLivesMatter activists who shut down Sen. Bernie Sanders’ event in Seattle on Sunday certainly trod pretty close to the border. Leaping on stage to seize the microphone from a 73-year-old man running for president, rejecting his outstretched hand, demanding that a crowd of thousands listen to someone they had no desire to hear, and then accusing them of “white supremacist liberalism” when they didn’t sit quietly—it’s all likely to alienate some potential white allies.
But if that happens, it won’t be the activists’ fault.
If you’re a white liberal or progressive and you feel a little offended by what occurred onstage in Seattle, that’s a reasonable reaction. The activists’ display was aggressive, intrusive, inconsiderate, rude and indiscriminate. In other words, it’s what the America that black people deal with must be like every day, everywhere from history textbooks to courtrooms, job interviews to pop culture.
By grabbing the mic the BLM movement is, in a way, refusing to be alienated despite the deadly tendency of U.S. society to alienate people of color. So, white progressives have no right to choose to be alienated just because we have the privilege to do so.
Instead, take deep breath and then return to the discussion on its merits. It’s unclear whether those two activists represented anyone other than themselves, and just because someone gets control of the mic doesn’t mean they have something worth saying, but it’s pretty clear that BLM—amorphous and decentralized as it is—isn’t coming out of left field in its critique.
Ask yourself: Has Bernie Sanders, or any other white politician, really said enough about what he intends to do about the violent racism that shapes the American present?
Ask yourself: If black America’s endurance of decades of lower life expectancy, mass imprisonment, lower wealth, police violence and sundry other injustices hasn’t awakened the establishment to the urgency of the crisis, is it reasonable for BLM expect that it’s grievances will be heard if it politely waits its turn?
Ask yourself: Are white progressives really so aware of the subtle and overt ways white privilege has shaped our lives and misshaped the lives of others that we don’t need the occasional in-our-face reminder?
The answer to those questions is no.
It’s unfortunate that Sanders was unable to talk about the economic security issues he intended to address, which are pressing and affect all people. But he’ll have other chances to do that. And until some legal and financial injustices are corrected, economic security will never be of equal to value to blacks as it is to whites.
I’ve never liked people heckling one another, or unplugging their microphones or drowning out debate with slogans. No doubt, there is far too much shouting and far too little listening in American politics. But that certainly didn’t start this weekend. Come campaign season, multimillion-dollar PACs invade my TV viewing time with manipulative propaganda far, far more often than BLM activists steal the sound system at rallies. It’s absurd to think that systematically dis-empowered people should play by the rules that other, more advantaged political players don’t really obey.
The left has a well-earned reputation for letting internal disputes undermine its mission, and Sunday’s episode did start to look like a circular firing squad, with the candidate walking off stage and some people in the crowd reportedly hurling epithets at the BLM activists. But self-defeat is choice, not destiny. Progressives will decide whether this and likely future episodes form into a rift or, instead, create a way to present to the broader public a more candid and democratic agenda for addressing racial injustice. There’s a difference between an uncomfortable (but useful) moment and an unbridgeable divide.
The point is, everyone has some power here—authority over her or his own reaction. Next time BLM grabs the mic, you can hiss, you can clap, you can listen. What you can’t do is run away.