In early August, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders arrived in Seattle to speak at a rally celebrating the 80th birthday of Social Security. Sanders was barely able to begin before two women climbed on stage, threatening to “shut the event down.” One of the protestors—both of whom are associated with the Black Lives Matter movement—repeatedly screamed “let her [the other protester] on the mic,” as the senator himself slipped quietly into the background. The rally’s organizer then addressed the crowd saying he would try to be reasonable and let the protesters speak after Senator Sanders. This enraged the protesters, who started shaking the podium, shoving the organizer, and screaming—unaware of the irony—“we are being reasonable!” The organizer was unwilling to endure any more abuse and ceded control of the microphone. The two protesters proceeded to call the crowd “white supremacist liberal[s]” and the city of Seattle racist. If you haven’t seen the video, it is on YouTube. Those of you who have been around toddlers throwing a tantrum will find the behavior of the protestors eerily familiar.
When working as a part of a grassroots movement like Black Lives Matter, there are certain things you cannot do if you want to be successful. The first of these things is basing your movement on—or defending it with—misleading or fabricated information. The second is alienating people, particularly those who are most likely to support you. The first is actually a subset of the second, but is important enough with respect to Black Lives Matter that it deserves to be touched on separately.
The poster child for Black Lives Matter’s present incarnation was Michael Brown. However, when all of the facts pertaining to the case came to light, it became obvious that the shooting of Michael Brown was in self-defense. The movement’s rallying cry—“Hands up, don’t shoot!”—turned out to be a completely inaccurate representation of what actually happened in Ferguson last summer.
To the leaders of the movement, however, these facts were irrelevant. As more and more alleged murders of black civilians by white police officers became headlines, it seemed like just a matter of time before mitigating circumstances bubbled to the surface as well—sometimes supporting claims of police brutality but calling into question racism as a motivating factor, such as the case of Freddie Gray, where 3 of the 6 officers indicted in the case were black. This cast doubt onto the narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Those at the forefront of the movement also seem reluctant to mention that in the cases where the evidence actually supported police brutality—such as the cases of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray—the police were indicted on several serious charges, ranging from assault to manslaughter to murder. Instead, Black Lives Matter chooses to focus on the cases where the evidence is insufficient for indictment, touting them as evidence of the systematic murder of black people by white police officers.
Many people who were initially on the fence about Black Lives Matter were seriously turned against the movement after repeatedly seeing protestors claim one thing while the evidence showed the opposite. Though many in the movement seem to feel that the evidence doesn’t matter, the reality is that to most people who are undecided on the issue, it is of paramount importance. Black Lives Matter is turning its potential allies into its opposition by embellishing and sometimes blatantly fabricating its claims.
Bernie Sanders’ track record with regard to civil rights puts that of all the other candidates in the 2016 election—and, frankly, most of the protesters affiliated with Black Lives Matter—to shame. He was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. He was arrested for his participation in protests against segregated campus housing as a student at the University of Chicago, and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. Say whatever you want about Bernie Sanders, but it is difficult to argue that he is anything but a sincere and devoted champion of civil rights for African-Americans.
Had the two protesters chosen to approach the event’s organizers (or Senator Sanders himself) in a respectful manner, it is clear from the video that the organizers would have been willing to let them speak. The crowd would almost certainly have been receptive to their message. After all, the circle of people who attend a speech by Bernie Sanders and the circle of people who would support the Black Lives Matter overlap quite a bit. Instead, by choosing to rudely interrupt Senator Sanders, verbally (as well as physically) assault the organizer of the event, and accuse the crowd of being racist, the two “activists” managed only to anger those who could have been their allies, as evidenced by the angry response of the crowd.
Moreover, their actions served to even further alienate those who were on the fence about their movement. When people see two young activists harassing and interrupting a—let’s be honest—fairly feeble looking old man, particularly when that old man has been fighting for the rights of African-Americans since before those protesters were born, it does nothing to win them over to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was, in essence, the worst public relations stunt the group could have planned.
Despite the fact that the actions of protesters such as those who interrupted Senator Sanders seem to suggest that making friends and drawing people into their movement is of little concern, this is a poor strategy for a grassroots movement to use. If Black Lives Matter is to be successful, it needs to evolve from a niche group into a serious, mainstream movement, and it must do so soon. Movements that are viewed as fringe and do nothing to incorporate themselves into the mainstream tend to fizzle out (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) with few successes to hang their hat on.
Articles like this one may be dismissed as “tone-policing” (especially when coming from an openly white person like myself) by those within the Black Lives Matter movement. However, it is at Black Lives Matter’s own peril that they ignore what their detractors say. Protesters like the ones who interrupted Senator Sanders certainly have a right to free speech, but they seem to be under the mistaken impression that they also have a right to be listened to. You cannot force people to hear what you have to say; if what you have to say is worth hearing, people will choose to listen. If they do not, perhaps you need to be honest with yourself about why that is. Though it may feel cathartic to shut people down and meet resistance and even questioning with anger—a strategy that suggests you are unable to adequately address criticism of your movement—it will make enemies of those on the fence and cause those who might have been your allies to think twice, ultimately driving your movement into the ground.
Image Source: Seattle Met