Why Are White Liberals Getting So “Berned Up” By Black Women Activists?

Talking with Black Lives Matters about the actions at Bernie Sanders's rallies, and the racism that it has revealed of the candidate’s predominantly white, fiercely devoted followers.

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On August 8, when two Black women activists from the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter took the mic from Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders as he prepared to speak at a Seattle rally for Social Security and Medicaid, one of the movement’s co-founders, Alicia Garza, was hundreds of miles away relaxing on her couch watching reruns of Sex and the City.    

Though she had nothing to do with organizing the disruption, she received a flurry of hate mail.

“I was trying to rejuvenate and I received close to 150 messages through email and social media saying: ‘You people should apologize to Bernie.’ ‘Don’t you realize what Bernie has done for you people?’,” said Garza.  

The anger was not limited to Garza. Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, who took the stage to call out the senator’s lack of support for BLM, were showered with boos, threats, and chants of “Bernie Matters!” For Garza there was a clear bipartisan problem and pattern.

“There’s the same kind of rage on both sides of the political spectrum.  And that says something profound about what Black folks can expect as we continue to engage in activism through the election cycle,” Garza said.

Supporters of Sanders have asked: Why target Bernie? Sanders is a self-described socialist with a strong civil-rights record.  

The argument is that, of all the candidates, he can be the most effective for racial justice. “That argument really illuminates the limitations and failures of White liberal politics,” said Darnell L. Moore, a BLM activist based in New York City. “If you watch that crowd of liberal progressives, their responses to the sistas on that stage was telling. People in Seattle claim to be in a liberal state, but Black people have a different experience of what that means in that space.”

Moore added: “Every time they say, ‘But Bernie Sanders marched for civil rights,’ that means you’re not listening to us. They are attempting to push forth a class analysis that lacks any analysis of race and anti-Black racism. What it does is center the Sanders campaign and the history of his involvement in civil rights, and it de-centers the voices and lived experiences of Black people.”

Sanders reminded the activists of his record on civil-rights issues. The fact that he, along with several hundred thousand people, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., the fact that he is more progressive on civil rights than Donald Trump, isn’t saying much in light of persistent racial inequality. But more importantly, BLM is not targeting Sanders.

In fact, BLM, which does not have a centralized leadership or organization, is not focusing on any one party or candidate. Some of the activists I interviewed last week said their agenda is not about influencing politicians or fostering change through traditional channels. These post-“Yes We Can”–era activists know that change is not coming from the political elite, irrespective of their populist rhetoric. They see the presidential rallies as staging grounds and spaces of organizing and community building.

“There isn’t a thing against Bernie. The sistas heard he was coming to town, so they seized the opportunity. They were moved by the spirit of the moment and got up to talk about the issues specific to the local community,” said Moore.

Moore explained that BLM has 26 chapters across the country. Each is organized around localized racial-justice issues that intersect with economic, sexual and gender concerns. And each chapter decides its own protest strategies.

“The local chapters figure out on their own terms the best way to address their community’s needs. Black Lives Matter is not a bought movement. We have no allegiance to any political party. We are a leader-full movement holding elected officials accountable for the way Black people are being treated. This is about self- determination, our safety, and people trying to figure out how to live,” Moore said.  

The heckling, boos, and hate mail were not the only attempts at silencing these activists. Online rumors accusing Willaford and Johnson of being paid infiltrators working for Hilary Clinton or the Tea Party sought to discredit the women, turning the focus away from their message. Moore and others confirmed that both women are BLM activists, and that the movement gets no funding from political machines.  

Despite the criticisms of the activists’ tactics—which Moore attributes to respectability politics—he sees the value of public disruptions. “People think we should meet behind closed doors,” said Moore. “But if we didn’t disrupt and bring these conversations into public discourse, people wouldn’t be talking about these issues.”

In wake of the Seattle takeover, Sanders hired a Black female BLM supporter and released a comprehensive racial-justice platform that centers Black lives. After the disruption at Netroots in Phoenix, Governor Martin O’Malley released a plan on criminal justice, which calls for widespread use of body cameras for police.  

This ain’t your mama’s civil-rights movement.

Garza and the other Black women activists are unbossed and unbought, following in the footsteps of Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer. They have made it clear that there can be no business as usual while Black people are dying in the streets.

BLM is also working in the tradition of ACT-UP and Code Pink, both mostly White organizations that have embraced the tactics of disrupting public gatherings and officials. The hostility directed at BLM, given the celebration of these White-led movements by White progressives, begs the question: Is it the tactics that people are uncomfortable with, or the sex and skin color of the people putting their bodies on the line?  

“When these groups disrupted, they were heroes and courageous. Now we have a group of Black women who are disrupting forums on behalf of Black life and we’re seen as people who don’t have a strategy,” said Los Angeles–based BLM co-founder Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac. “That has everything to do with stereotypes of being Black and female in this country.”

“White supremacy is very real. If two Black women can go up there and hold space and get that kind of response from those folks in Seattle who claim to be so progressive then we have a problem. The vitriol from the left is a litmus test for what we imagine what would happened if we did this in a Republican setting,” said Moore.

The optics of two Black women publicly confronting powerful White men is certainly unprecedented. Willaford and Johnson pushed aside a history where Black women have been denied access to the political stage, a place where White male politicians routinely demonized and chastise them as bad mothers and welfare queens driving up the national debt, who regularly denounce their cultural influence as disputable and immoral. Willaford and Johnson snatched the mic, owned the stage, and made clear who was in charge, followed up with a hashtag: #BowDownBernie.

While eschewing White fragility in favor of Black survival, BLM activists are also challenging Black people’s hang-ups around queer leadership, women’s roles, and respectability politics.

“There’s a lot to be learned from Black women’s resistance,” said Garza. “Black women participate consistently in elections and toward the side of justice. Black women are consistently carrying the crisis of democracy and of the country’s economy on our backs. They have consistently taken risks that have opened up opportunities for everyone in the workplace, home, and in social justice.”

“From what I can see, it is a wholly new paradigm of Black women’s leadership,” said Daryl Scott, a history professor at Howard University. “Historically Black women have been expected to do be the support for the leadership of Black men, doing everything from serving food to carrying out the details of organization. BLM, however, places women in leadership roles and tosses aside gendered expectations of how roles are supposed to be fulfilled.”

Scott said he is not certain if we are witnessing a new brand of womanist politics or a new brand of Black feminist politics, but we are definitely witnessing a new paradigm. Historically, Black women were organizing, and working at a grassroots level, often behind the higher-profile Black male leaders. Now, they doing the work and are the face, and voice, of the movement. 

The politics of respectability, which required male clergy leaders, have been pushed aside; the walls of a media that sought after those leaders and credentials have been kicked over by this group of Black women who aren’t calling press conferences or asking for a microphone, but snatching it without care or concern of the optics. For this generation, there are no worries about “airing dirty laundry” or reinforcing stereotypes. These women are literally fighting for their lives and they could care less if that makes White people uncomfortable.

BLM has made clear over and over again that its tactics don’t cater to White people’s feelings. It is no wonder that the Seattle disruption prompted so much outrage from those who say they support Black lives, but on White terms.

“It is interesting to me that there has been a hyperfocus on two women activists and less on the vitriolic responses of the White liberal audience. I’m more interested—to what extent do Black lives matter to the White liberals. If that’s what they consider to be the most progressive contingent of White folks then that makes me really scared,” said Cullors-Brignac.

The protest in Seattle sent the message that if you are an ally, if you support Bernie, if you live in Seattle, if you drink kale juice, if you love Cecil the lion, if you marched with Dr. King, you still will be held accountable. There are no passes in this movement. 

The protests across the nation are not simply disrupting speeches and staged campaign events, but one of the biggest lies of White supremacy: that racism is “over there” on the far right, that racism is a Southern or White working-class problem. In the belly of the liberal beast, BLM made clear that racism isn’t just about the Klan, Dylann Roof, the GOP, and Fox News, but it is Seattle, and Phoenix, it is Bernie, Netroots Nation, and the Democratic Party, and it is at the core of American society. 


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