Black Lives Matter Activists Disrupt Presidential Candidates at Activist Conference

You may have heard that there was a spot of bother at Netroots Nation this week. Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a forum with Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, wanting to know what the presidential candidates would do to end unjustified police shootings of African-Americans.

Some progressives thought the BLM activists were disrespectful, particularly in interrupting O’Malley and Sanders when they tried to answer the protestors’ questions. Sanders supporters in particular have been quick to point out on Twitter and elsewhere that the Vermont Senator was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, and that his populist economic platform would be good for impoverished minorities.

Black activists, in turn, responded that O’Malley and Sanders weren’t very respectful themselves, talking over and down to the BLM folks, and repeating the “All lives matter” slogan that many find objectionable.

Some thoughts:

1. Anybody surprised that activists at an activist convention would do activist things is a damn fool. For fuck’s sake, Netroots Nation’s first patron wrote a book titled Crashing the Gates. Of course things get a bit rowdy from time to time. That’s part of the culture. (Perhaps unnecessary disclosure: I came up with the original idea for Yearly Kos, which later morphed into the Netroots Nation we know today, and was involved in the very early planning stages. I haven’t had anything to do with it since 2007.)

2. The point of saying that Netroots is an activist convention isn’t to excuse rudeness. (That’s a separate issue, on which I’d agree with Chris Savage: if you didn’t care for the BLM tactics, you should consider that they’re on the receiving end of the same treatment every day of their lives.)

Anyway, politicians appearing before the Netroots crowds really ought to be prepared for how confrontational things can get there. They (or their advance people) didn’t do their homework. More important, anyone who wants to be considered a serious presidential candidate in 2016 needs to be ready to answer questions related to the agenda of what is essentially a new, emergent civil rights movement. There is a lot of energy in the black community around police homicides in particular. Pols don’t need stock answers to the problem, but they need to understand the issues, at the very least how to signal that they’re listening on the subject. That O’Malley and Sanders didn’t have things mapped out in advance says that they’re not quite ready for prime time, and certainly that they’re not able to capture the Obama coalition, at least not at the moment. They’ll need to do that if they have any hope of winning the general election.

3. To his credit, O’Malley took a meeting with This Week in Blackness founder Elon James White and admitted that he blew it at the Netroots forum. Whether he did or not is immaterial—the point is again to signal, “I’m listening.” That was more than Sanders could manage. He was apparently so undone that he canceled events with the local Democratic party and later with White. This, to put it mildly, is not a good way to show you’re open to dialogue.

4. If you’ll allow me a point of personal privilege, I think it helps to look at the story through a pastor’s lens. People want to be heard. Very often in community it’s necessary to acknowledge and validate feelings, to say “I get it: you’re angry, or you’re sad, and that really sucks.” But that’s only the start. You have to acknowledge that there are serious concerns behind the feelings. Of course people are sad, angry, and upset about violence directed toward blacks in America. They’re being killed! And in the same way that funeral sermons about death in general don’t go over as well as those that reference the life of the actual person being buried, generic statements about “all lives matter” aren’t going to cut it. The concerns about violence against blacks are specific and serious. Without an upfront acknowledgment of that fact, there’s no way for even the friendliest white politician to show that he or she gets it.

Sometimes, leaders just have to let the agenda change. The priorities of the people being led do not always line up with what the leaders think they should be; and that’s okay, as long as those needs get the response they deserve.

As it happens, even the best of leaders blow it once in a while. The trick is to recover as best you can, while maintaining the human connection. Politicians don’t have to be Jesus, but if you can’t occasionally set the prepared speech aside and invite people to share their suffering, then as a candidate you’re not worth a bucket of warm piss, to use John Nance Garner’s colorful expression.

In that regard, consider another example from this weekend, but not related to Netroots Nation. Scott Walker turned in an absolutely disgraceful performance when confronted by the children of an undocumented immigrant who wanted to know why Walker joined a lawsuit challenging Pres. Obama’s decision not to prioritize the deportation of people like their father. Walker stuck to his message about people not being above the law and securing the borders without recognizing a thirteen-year-old’s fear and anger.

That might be smart politics, but it’s piss-poor listening. Walker says “faith defines who I am and it plays a role in every part of my life.” Again, candidates don’t have to be Jesus, but it couldn’t hurt to take a little advice from him, either.

5 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    So Netroots is looking for someone who is a better politician than Sanders, someone who can work a crowd and tell the people something they want to hear.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    Or maybe for a pastor who feels their pain. I dunno, I kinda got lost somewhere in there. I agree Sanders didn’t handle it well, during or after.

    I don’t give the activists a “by” because their activists, or life hasn’t been especially kind to them. There is a place for politicians to be “pastoral” (think of RFK’s speech on the day MLK was assassinated), but I don’t think this was that occasion for either O’Malley or Sanders.

  • karliecole@gmail.com' AnotherWorldIsPossible says:

    What bugs me about the Netroots event is that it was set as a discussion event (after a 15 minute speech). Why was there even a need to push? The time for questions was already available?

  • I am at a loss as to why BLM felt that using this particular forum was even necessary. We are talking about a group of people who are already aware of the issues, who are political and economic activists trying to find solutions, and here are two candidates who have actively worked for years to help create better lives for African-Americans, and for all Americans, in fact. By all accounts, Bernie Sanders is perhaps one of the true champions in the area of civil rights, and yet I do not find it at all unreasonable for him to pull back from interviews afterwards, when it was made patently clear that they did not want to hear his ideas or possible ways to find solutions. I will give O’Malley kudos for trying to undo the damage of his comments, but his point was valid – ALL LIVES MATTER!

    When we started creating a diversity movement, we forgot that. We allowed politicians with agendas to drag us apart even further than we already were. I grew up in a home where people of all races and ethnic backgrounds were visitors because of the nature of my father’s business travels. I grew up recognizing that there were serious racial divides in this nation, even though I did not live in the South until I went away to college.

    Do African-Americans have a serious problem with their very survival here in America? Absolutely, and it is up to the rest of us to work to find solutions and resolutions to these problems by working together, not driving further wedges into the issues. If our schools will not teach history or civics or even the basics of an education, then perhaps we should start teaching our children in the basements of our churches, integrated and honestly. Until we have, once again, a fairly well educated populace of all races, religions, and ethnicity who realize that WE ARE ALL AMERICANS AND WHEN ONE BLEEDS, WE ALL BLEED, we are not going to have elected officials with the willingness or the courage to stop the militarized police in our communities. And politicians like Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Sanders will continue to be exceptions to the rule, rather than the rule, and groups like BLM who know very little apparently about those they interrupted will continue to undermine their own cause.

  • dakotahgeo@hotmail.com' George M Melby says:

    I am gay; I am liberal; I am a retired Baptist minister, now Mennonite. I support all progressive LGBT causes… HOWEVER, I despise any person or group that shows a lack of respect by interupting ANY organization or speaker that is in our corner or not! If you WANT respect, you SHOW respect! If not… STFU! This goes for pinkmenno also!

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