Sanders Rally Shutdown Shows The Schism Progressives Will Need To Address

Political discussion on my Twitter circles were mostly centered around the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle that was shut down by activists identifying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

There were two dominant narratives observed in the media:

Supporters of the Sanders campaign were critical of the activists, frequently claiming that their candidate was the most-aligned with racial equality concerns. In the hours following the disrupted rally, supporters began entertaining the idea that the event disruptions -including the event at Netroots Nation in July - were conspiratorial tactics by political opponents. The frustration from Bernie supporters is extremely visible when searching the #FeeltheBern, #BlackLivesMatter, and #BowDownBernie hashtags. They question why those associated with BLM would target Sanders - ostensibly the most "progressive" candidate in the race

However, many activists who identify with Black Lives Matter are now using the response on social media to highlight the issues Bernie's core base has with the movement, which is fighting for visibility one year after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the video above, Marissa Johnson tells the hostile crowd that it is time to honor the memory of Michael Brown, whose murder launched #BlackLivesMatter into larger visibility last year. 

In response, a woman in the crowd angrily yells out, "We've already done it!"

That statement encapsulates the type of person some in the movement are trying to target by crashing Sanders rallies. And it demonstrates that the biggest rift may not even be between Sanders and activists, but between activists and Sanders' core demographic.

Many followers of social justice topics on the Internet are now more familiar with the problematic nature of mainstream progressivism, which, by their accounts, focuses mostly on expanding a social safety net for a white middle class, while seemingly leaving the core issues of black rights as a secondary concern. A concern that gets occasional lipservice when politically convenient, but which can be swept away for other priorities. 

A nearly-three minute video on the Seattle Times website shows how the disruption began.

Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, of Black Lives Matter Seattle, get on the stage and demand time on the mic from Sanders himself before Sanders is pulled away by event organizer Robby Stern. The confrontation escalates in their exchange with Stern who demands that Bernie be allowed to speak first.

(Followers of black social justice activists will note that this is considered a silencing tactic and a reinforcement of white privilege - to let the powerful white male have his say before the women of color who are speaking out for a change to the status quo). 

For his part, Sanders seems initially flustered and then content to let his event organizers decide what happens next. Stern first tries to threaten to shut the entire event down rather than let the two women speak. Sanders then tries intervene directly, interrupting Johnson, who interrupts him back. The exchange angers both parties and puts an end to Sanders' attempt to take control of the situation.

Stern then concedes "a couple of minutes" to the activists, after continuously being told by Willaford to stop trying to put conditions on Johnson's speech.

Johnson's prepared remarks to the crowd center around the theme of Seattle's issues with police brutality, racial inequality, and gentrification. (In 2011, the federal Justice Department said they had "found that SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.")


When it becomes clear that Johnson's speech will go longer than expected, the crowd becomes increasingly hostile.

Sanders did not reclaim the microphone at the rally and went on to a fundraising event at the Comet Tavern in Seattle's political district. Also on Saturday, the campaign introduced Symone D. Sanders, a recent graduate of Creighton University in Nebraska  and a woman of color, as Sanders' new press secretary. Symone spoke at a large rally of about 12,000 at the Alaska Airlines Arena.

Symone D. Sanders, new press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, speaking in Seattle. Photo by Evan McMorris Santoro, BuzzFeed.

Symone D. Sanders, new press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, speaking in Seattle. Photo by Evan McMorris Santoro, BuzzFeed.

On the topic of Bernie Sanders and black rights issues, Symone Sanders has said, "It's not just about, 'I fought for civil rights and I protested and I sat at the lunch counters,' That is important and that is great, but that was 50 years ago. And he has a lot more to stand on than what he did 50 years ago. I think some people haven't heard it yet, They haven't received it yet. But I think they will hear it and they will receive it."

Additional Reading:

Black Lives Matter Seattle Press Release