When Bernie Sanders stood before the packed-in crowd of mostly white liberals and their children at the Comet Tavern last Saturday, you never would have guessed he'd just been screamed at by Black Lives Matter activists. The disruption ultimately caused Sanders to leave Westlake Park without speaking on the issues he was there to address—Social Security and Medicare, also known as earned benefits—which dismayed the event organizers, angered Sanders supporters, and inspired some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The calm, comfortable scene at the Comet couldn't have been more different than the tense scene at Westlake Park. I was eight feet from the Westlake stage when Sanders opened his speech to a crowd of thousands by thanking Seattle for being one of the most progressive cities in the United States. At that moment, Mara Jacqueline Willaford, an activist with Black Lives Matter Seattle, raised her fist into the air. Then she and Marissa Johnson, also an activist with BLM-Seattle, got onstage and yelled at Sanders until he gave up the mic.
The crowd booed and hissed and chanted "Bernie," which overwhelmed the chant to "let them speak." As Johnson and Willaford called for silence, some people raised fists in solidarity, but the more vocal Sanders supporters shouted vitriolic shit. Someone from behind the stage threw a full bottle of water, which hit me in the stomach. If that bottle of water had been thrown a little higher, a little more to the right, one of the two women who had commandeered the mic would have been hit in the head. The scene may have turned violent. The little cadre of cops keeping watch could have leaped onstage and indulged their rage for order, and things could've gotten even uglier. I don't know who the bottle-thrower was aiming for, whether they were aiming at all, or whether they were from Seattle. But I would like to use this platform briefly to say: Fuck you. You're not helping.
When Johnson called the crowd racists and accused Seattle of practicing "white supremacist liberalism," the more vocal members of the crowd got even more pissed. Johnson and Willaford eventually got their moment of silence for Michael Brown, sort of. One person yelled "Bernie matters" during the silence.
The most vocal members of the crowd, from my perspective, seemed to be old white people. They may have had a deeper emotional connection to earned benefits than the rest of us. But the majority of the people I talked to at Westlake Park—around 20, I'd say—all said they had showed up to see Bernie Sanders. However, Sanders was due to give a bigger, more Sanders-centric rally two hours later. If they really wanted to see him, why not just chalk up this short speech as a loss, grab some lunch downtown, knock back a glass of rosé, and catch a bus up to the U-District?
Apart from vein-popping anger, there was also a lot of crying. A volunteer for Social Security Works - Washington (SSWW), which organized the event, walked up to me after Sanders had left for the Comet and in tears said, "Don't make this all about them," referring to Johnson and Willaford. As the crowd dispersed, Robby Stern, president of Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, tried to redirect attention back to earned benefits by asking the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to a cardboard cake. It was an adorable political prop, but it didn't work. I wish more people had paid attention to Xochitl Maykovich, one of the event organizers from Washington Community Action Network, who got up onstage and connected the demands of the BLM-Seattle activists to what the rally was all about.
The information was right there if you were paying careful attention before the disruption. Forty-two percent of African Americans who are beneficiaries of Social Security rely on it as their sole source of income, said Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP. Without Social Security, 50 percent of all American women would live below the poverty line, said Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. Women are particularly affected by Social Security in that women who take time off to have children lose work credits, and they also get less money on average because of the gender gap in pay, Maykovich said.
Republicans are constantly threatening to cut these programs, calling them bankrupt against all evidence and sense. State governors who decided for political reasons not to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid under Obamacare are risking 17,000 preventable deaths every single year, disproportionately affecting women and people of color, according to a New York Times analysis of data from Annals of Internal Medicine.
That the media, which obviously includes me, would now be talking about BLM-Seattle and not the importance of protecting and expanding Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, especially in ways that benefit women and people of color, is why that volunteer for SSWW was crying. She was fighting systematic racism and sexism by holding a rally. Johnson and Willaford were fighting systematic racism and sexism by disrupting that rally. The other tears I saw were falling from the eyes of Johnson, who, after being booed, screamed that the people in the crowd didn't care if she lived or died.
In any case, the disruption worked. BLM-Seattle shut Sanders down. In a press release the day after, BLM-Seattle wrote: "Presidential candidates should expect to be shut down and confronted every step along the way of this presidential campaign. Black people are in a state of emergency. Lines have been drawn in the sand. You are either fighting continuously and measurably to protect Black life in America, or you are a part of the white supremacist system that we will tear down in the liberation of our people."
Johnson, who identifies herself as a BLM-Seattle cofounder, has not returned The Stranger's calls or Facebook messages, but in an interview two days after the direct action at the rally, on the podcast This Week in Blackness, she said: "I do agitation work. 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."
She also described herself as "a very devout evangelical Christian" and said, "My religion says you lay down your life for other people and the most marginalized. So that's what I do. So I guess I am a Christian extremist." When asked why she chose Bernie Sanders and not a politician whose policies more directly hurt women and people of color than Sanders's policies do, she said, "You hear people saying that, Bernie supporters: 'Well he's your best option!' It's like, 'If he's our best option, then I'm burning this to the ground.'"
Johnson said on the podcast that her parents are Tea Partyers. Even though her politics are different, she clearly believes in the power of political theater. Her disruption at Westlake shows that she's a potent force.
Bernie Sanders seemed subdued when he arrived at the Comet, but his hair was telling a different story. The wind had licked it up into a perfect Alfalfa do, a single point peaking up from a base of white strands plastered to his head. He looked boyish and calm, his hands crossed in front of his junk like a groomsman at a wedding.
During the 14-minute Reader's Digest version of his stump speech, Sanders didn't talk about refusing the microphone when someone gave it back to him following the interruption at Westlake. He didn't apologize for speaking over the BLM disrupters at Netroots Nation in July (something BLM-Seattle has insisted he do). He offered no comment about racial justice outside the usual ones he gives in every stump speech, nor did anyone in the crowd ask him to. As he checked off his big items—the need to reduce income inequality, the need to overturn Citizens United, the need to address climate change, the need to create job opportunities for young blacks and Hispanics—he made sure to give Seattle credit for leading the charge on establishing a $15 per hour minimum wage, which is one of the issues he uses to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton. The crowd cheered loudly at that. (Other contrasts with Clinton: his vote against the Patriot Act, his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and the TPP, and his refusal to take money from corporations.) The Comet's windows were open to the street, and it was raining, and a few people poked their heads in, despite not having paid the $200 minimum required to attend. (The Stranger paid the required $200 to attend.)
The open windows were no surprise. It has to be said that Bernie Sanders is an easy target as far as disrupting presidential campaigns goes. BLM seems to be exploiting his relative lack of security detail, his relatively pacifist fans, and the high level of attention he commands in order to amplify their voices. When Johnson was asked on This Week in Blackness why she wasn't disrupting Hillary Clinton's campaign, Johnson mentioned Clinton's Secret Service detail and said it's "about accessibility." She wasn't asked why she hasn't tried to disrupt Republican campaigns, though she did say several times that her overall goal was to "dismantle" the whole system.
What would happen if BLM managed to disrupt a Rick Perry event? Sanders has been pilloried by BLM for not apologizing to activists for perceived slights, but he has also been a civil rights supporter since the 1960s. But Rick Perry? As has been widely reported, the hunting grounds on his West Texas ranch used to be called "Niggerhead." Or what about Scott Walker, who employed the racist "Southern Strategy" to get elected in Wisconsin and is using that very same strategy to get elected on the national stage? What would happen if BLM disrupted a Koch brothers conservative retreat? Or the next press conference where Donald Trump refuses to apologize for smearing all Mexicans as rapists?
Or what if activists somehow shut down the next televised Republican debate? The first Republican debate of this presidential campaign was two hours long, but BLM was discussed for literally less than 30 seconds.
Needless to say, the righteous anger of Black Lives Matter activists puts Bernie Sanders in a weird bind. They have a point: The way our society is structured is racist. But he can't argue too strenuously with Black Lives Matter activists without appearing to be against the cause. Meanwhile, Clinton is currently polling at 61 percent to Sanders's 9 percent among nonwhite voters. "On criminal-justice reform and the need to fight racism, there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me," Sanders said the day after the Westlake rally. But BLM interruptions make Sanders look to some like he's not "fighting continuously and measurably to protect Black life in America."
The big story at his University of Washington rally right after the Comet wasn't that 15,000 Seattleites showed up, 3,000 of them listening to speeches via an audio feed outside. Nor was it the extreme stuffiness that resulted from hot lights and the body heat in the filled-to-capacity Hec Edmundson Pavilion, which was causing Sanders to sweat all over his button-up shirt.
The big news was the announcement of his new national press secretary, Symone Sanders. One way of showing that he is fighting "measurably" to protect black life in America is his elevation of Symone Sanders to such a prominent role. She's a charismatic, energizing, young black woman who brought down the house. Combining Bernie Sanders's rhetoric with the rhetoric of BLM, she said, "Enough is enough. Black lives matter," a line that drew maximum screaming/stomping/noises. That she's the new face of the Sanders campaign suggests that he's listening to criticism and that he's already been listening to criticism. The process to hire Symone Sanders started weeks ago, CNN reports. It's possible the campaign added a "racial justice" tab on the issues page of its website as a direct result of the BLM-Seattle disruptions, because that page showed up immediately after the direct action, but as my esteemed colleague Sydney Brownstone reported last week, Sanders's communication director, Michael Briggs, said the detailed "racial justice" plan was "already in the works."
That said, Sanders didn't personally acknowledge the BLM disruptions at the UW rally. He had the chance to say something, but he didn't go off script. I wished he would have. Twenty minutes into Sanders's stump speech, the waterfall of ideas you can't argue with—make university education free!—started to drown us all. He described a progressive utopia that seemed impossible given the Republican House and Senate that we all know he'll inherit if he gets into office—which is still a massive if.
Part of what makes Sanders supporters feel like he can overcome that "if" is their belief that, compared to Clinton, he's a straight shooter, a guy who speaks from the heart, a guy who's not bullshitting you. That was a refrain I heard over and over the day he visited Seattle. But his failure to acknowledge Westlake suggests something else. Sanders seems like he's speaking from the heart, but his refusal to go off script, to look at the people of Seattle and respond with personal feeling about what had just happened in Westlake, almost made him seem cold, mechanical—like any other politician.