The roar of internet response to what happened in Seattle on Saturday surprised even one of the activists behind the action. But in retrospect, it makes some sense. On that stage in Westlake Plaza, some of the most emotional issues of the moment collided: race, class, age, opportunity, privilege.
Two black women who said they were representing the Seattle Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a rally that had been planned by a multicultural coalition that wanted to celebrate Social Security and Medicare. The main speaker at that rally, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, was an older white man who, two weeks earlier, had tried to communicate his solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and whose campaign had been working on (but had not yet released) a racial justice platform. Sanders says he will fight harder against racism than any other candidate. One of the protesters who interrupted him, Marissa Johnson, says: "If he's our best option then I'm burning this down."
The crowd at the rally was largely white and thought it had come to cheer a surging Socialist candidate as well as important social programs that keep millions of Americans out of poverty. When the rally narrative they expected was interrupted, the response by some in the crowd of thousands turned ugly. When that happened, Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, said the crowd had just proved its own racism.
The last person to speak at the rally before Sanders, Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal, has already, and with great multidirectional empathy, outlined what she feels may be among the roots of what happened in Seattle on Saturday. The "anger and rage that we saw erupt," Jayapal wrote, is "not the problem." Rather, she wrote, "it's a symptom of the disease of unacknowledged and un-acted upon racism."
Yesterday, in an interview with the This Week in Blackness podcast, Marissa Johnson outlined, in her own words, what she was thinking and what she believes. Johnson is a familiar face in the local Black Lives Matter movement and has also expressed policy opinions at local protests stretching back many months. Her ideas are worth exploring.
Based on what she's said, it seems clear that her rally interruption did not originate only from the abstract realms of political theory. At the same time, it was a political action, taken at a political rally in a literal public square, and so the political thought involved seems especially important to consider. It's the serious consideration of political ideas—the rejection of some, the acceptance of others, the evolution of still other ideas—that make a democracy (and movements within a democracy) work.
In that spirit, below are a number of things that Johnson—who so far has not responded to Stranger requests for interviews, though we hope she does at some point—has said while describing her policy ideas and politics.
According to the Seattle Times:
Johnson said she wanted to get rid of all police, whom she labeled abusive and authoritarian. And she called the discussion of body cameras a “farce.”
“I don’t need a home video of my oppression,” she said.
In conversation with This Week in Blackness, Johnson said:
Going after Sanders is super, super important because Sanders is supposed to be as far left and as progressive as we can possibly get, right? ... [In Seattle] we have hordes and hordes of white liberals and white progressives and yet we still have all the same racial problems. So for us, locally in our context, confronting Sanders was the equivalent of confronting the large, white, liberal Democrat, leftist contingent that we have here in Seattle who not only have not supported BLM in measurable ways but is often very harmful and is also upholding the white supremacist society that we live in locally... What we didn't know was that that idea—of the white liberal, the white moderate who's complicit in white supremacy—that that idea would resonate with people nationally and internationally and spur into this larger conversation.
On why she didn't call the Sanders campaign in advance and ask to be a part of the Westlake event:
Part of it comes out of my personal politics, and out of BLM politics. Everybody keeps saying that black people need to be respectable, that they need to ask permission, that they need to work with the timetable that's been given to them. And I absolutely just rebuke and deny all of that... The un-respectability, and the tactic, the way we went about it—every single part of it was very intentional. ... Black people don't need to be respectable, black people don't need to go on your timetable, black people don't need to reach out to Bernie Sanders. If anything, Bernie Sanders should have been courting—before he went to any other major city—he should have been courting BLM. And even at that point, I haven't seen any politician that's done anything for black lives. I don't have any need to meet with them, period. I haven't seen anybody really willing to step it up. So, there's a lot of ways that politicians are trying to get activists swept up in rhetoric, and sitting around the table, sitting around the table to do nothing but repress movements, and so the work that I do in particular is agitational work. Is agitating the political scene, so that people are having these conversations and politicians are forced to do their own work, and do their own reforms, because of work that I've done on the ground.
What about the argument that her tactics are hurting her own cause?
I don't give a fuck about the white gaze. I don't and I never will.
Is she a Christian fundamentalist? A Sarah Palin supporter?
I do need to address that. That's actually really important for me to address, because part of that is true. My parents are both Tea Partiers. I'm mixed. My mom's white and my dad's black. And they're both big Tea Partiers and that's how I was raised. Clearly I'm not—that's not where I am because people leave high school and they go to college and they, like, become an adult and they change their mind... I'm 24... But I do want to say I am a very devout Evangelical Christian... And people who know me locally and nationally in my organizing work know that that is why I do what I do. And so yes, I did run up there and confront Bernie Sanders because of my religious convictions, absolutely. Are they right-wing religious? No. But they're religious in the fact that my religion says you lay down your life for other people and the most marginalized, and so that's what I do. So I guess I am a Christian extremist.
On calling the crowd at the rally racist:
I would say that anybody who hears me say that, and thinks about their feelings first, is a white supremacist.
Does she hate white people?
Even if I did hate white people, I don't have the political or social power to oppress white people. And it's verifiably false [that I hate white people]. So flip that. The question is actually, Do you love black people? To the extent that you are literally willing to sacrifice your life. Are you on some Underground Railroad type stuff, or are you not? Because that's the tip I'm on. So I think framing is really important.
On her theory of politics:
I don't have faith in politicians. I don't have faith in the electoral process. It's well documented that that doesn't work for us. No matter who you are. So my gaze is not toward politicians and getting them to do something in particular. I think they will change what they do based off of what I do, but that's not my center. My center is using electoral politics as a platform but also agitating so much that people continue to question the system they're in as they're doing it, and that we start to dismantle it. Because I refuse to believe that the system that we're in is the only option that we have. And so we hear people saying—Bernie supporters—"Well, he's your best option." It's like, If he's our best option then I'm burning this down. I think it's literally blowing up—this is why the respectability thing is so important—is that you blow it up so big, and so unrespectably, that you can show people the possibilities outside of the system that they're stuck in. And so that's why I do agitation work.
So I'm not for any politician. But I'm definitely for anything that pulls people further left, anything that gets people asking more questions, and gets us closer to actually dismantling the system that has never, ever, ever, ever done anything for black people and never will. So I'm really trying to see my people get free by any means possible.
On how she's feeling in the wake of the rally interruption and the intense reaction:
I'm great. I feel good. I helped launch a national conversation around race and electoral politics and respectability that still going strong two days later. I could not be better.
Editor's note: This article has been updated.