Before I criticize the August 8 disruption of the Social Security and Medicare rally in Westlake Park by Black Lives Matter activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, I want to make a few things clear. One, I support the Black Lives Matter movement, which is decentralized and more like a cloud of urgent conversations and interactions than a conventional political organization. BLM might be seen as a necessary adaptation to the ether-like age of social networks. And in this respect, it is not exceptional. Other such clouds formed in Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011. Only racists believe BLM is wrong to insist that black Americans are disproportionately harassed, arrested, jailed, and killed by law-enforcement officers. These claims are supported by hard data, numerous studies, and the experiences of thousands of black Americans. I also share the opinion with Seattle's BLM members that, though our city is progressive (gay mayor, socialist council member, and so on), it maintains an economic and social structure that benefits mostly whites and often blocks opportunities for blacks and reinforces black poverty.
I want to also point out something that has been in the back of my mind since I saw the YouTube video of the disruption. Yes, I was unnerved by the manner in which Johnson and Willaford took command of the mic during the rally. The screaming was so heated, so shrill, that I found it to be more abusive than productive. I have to be honest about this. I do not believe such extreme expressions have any place in a democratic event. Conservative talk radio? Yes, that sort of thing is to be expected. But not at a protest for a progressive, and so pro-social, cause. We are better than the enemy.
Also, I think the reason many found this behavior so disagreeable had more to do with sexism and racism. In our culture, it is not uncommon for women who unconditionally make demands at the top of their lungs to be registered as hysterical or crazy bitches. And we live in a world where violence against women is so often justified on these grounds: The woman is out of control, she needs to be silenced, she needs a proper smackdown, and the like. I believe that this complicated historical, racial, and gender background must be appreciated before any meaningful criticism can occur.
That said, I disagree with the BLM action not because Bernie Sanders marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and therefore clearly paid his not-a-racist dues and should be left alone by black activists (GOP Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell also marched with MLK). My point is simply that, as imperfect as Sanders is, and as imperfect as white progressives are in this city, it still makes more political sense to form alliances with them rather than risk isolation. As much as I may agree with the content of Johnson and Willaford's disruption, its context (an event that was not for Sanders but for a very important issue that affects millions of black Americans) and its brazen disrespect clearly closed rather than opened a lot of people to the BLM cause.
True, some of the people who booed Johnson and Willaford were likely racist, but many were simply upset by what they perceived, with good reason, as arrogant behavior. The event had been happening for hours, and it had taken months to organize and promote. Speakers knew well in advance the amount of time they were allotted to express their concerns. Then, suddenly, two people break out of nowhere, take the mic, and appear by their actions to claim that their cause is far more important, more pressing than the one many had come to support. This, I'm sorry, is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way—and not because they are racist but because they are human. Rudely jumping the line rarely excites cheers and applause in any of the colors of our kind.
At present, BLM is not a political organization; it is instead a movement, a mood, a roiling cloud of posts and hashtags. As such, it can for sure have an immediate impact and grab the headlines. But the big question is this: Can it have a lasting impact? If it hopes to do so, it will have to consolidate, form a clear structure, create democratic procedures for action, and make alliances with other like-minded political organizations. This is straight talk; this is political realism. BLM will certainly evaporate if it is isolated from one of the major groups that's politically open to its concerns: the progressive left.