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.