#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie, and me, an Old White Lady Speaks

As Obama’s days in office wind down, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is picking up and maybe that’s not a coincidence. At the same time that the movement against wealth inequality has found its candidate in Bernie Sanders, many are wondering if he understands the urgency of ending White Supremacy, and they were wondering this before his appearance at NetRoots Nation.

So let me start with my own confession as a white woman, an old one at that. I watched the takeover on stage of Bernie’s speech, the part I could see on video, and remembered the city council takeover here in Oakland. I experienced a mix of emotions while watching both.

On the one hand, at the city council meeting I was genuinely annoyed that the meeting I had been waiting for-in order to speak to the council in support of a long fought battle to strengthen the Citizens’ Police Review Board-was not going to happen. As the city had inexplicably pulled our item from the previous meeting agenda, an item that we have reason to believe might curtail police brutality, I thought, wait, not now, you didn’t tell/ask me!

Yeah, folks I’ll admit to being miffed at being left out of that discussion, and I saw that some people at that meeting were a bit frightened given that a week before Oakland’s downtown had seen an unusual amount of smashy-smashy. I even tweeted about our need to be heard at the meeting.

But, if you look back, you have to give it to the folks who planned that action, it stopped a vote that might have eventually been stopped by a lawsuit, but the action emboldened young activists who were members of #BlackLivesMatter and #AsiansforBlackLivesMatter to take the process over when their voices weren’t being heard; and they got a victory, a big victory.

And therein lies the rub. Your average middle class, middle-of-the-road Oaklander/American doesn’t feel comfortable with people who don’t follow the rules. Interestingly, when I wrote a blog denouncing the city’s measures to limit public seating at its meetings after that, some of my more progressive friends disagreed with me.

Fast forward to Bernie’s appearance at the NetRoots Nation event, and that’s how lots of my movement white friends, certainly not all, responded to the shouting down of their beloved Bernie Sanders. How did I feel when watching? I felt: pained, pained that Bernie didn’t have a clue how to respond and worried because he needs Black activism to succeed-just when we had begun to believe that he is a serious candidate-saddened that he didn’t seem to understand the differences between his economic agenda and one that seeks to end institutional racism, pissed off a little that he was exposed this way and something else, elated.

Yes, elated that the #BlackLivesMatter folks are so courageous and effective. That was truly Shakespearean. They addressed the audience and the candidates (or the other actors in our presidential play) and said, something’s rotten in Oakland/America. And the Bush era of restrictive “free speech zones” like I experienced when Hillary came to Oakland back in 2007 are over, thank god (See http://grandlakeguardian.org/index.php/drake/2007/10/08/sunday_rally_for_hillary_clinton .)

You might say that’s what Bernie is also talking about to audiences of thousands. Yeah, he is, but he has missed a big hunk of our reality, a steaming pile of smelly shit-white supremacy-institutional racism-the urgency of people dying at the hands of the state for no other reason than being Black. And that doesn’t even cover the reality of the everyday lives of Black and Brown people who live in rotting neighborhoods, go to worn out schools and languish in jails that resemble the Bastille.

I’m lucky. There are members of my family who are Black (biracial if you will, or African-American if Black is too straightforward for you.) They check me when I make stupid, naive or even offensive comments if I haven’t been able to check myself first. Maybe as a Leftist I would care as much without their prodding, but really, it wouldn’t be something I would think about every day. No one wants to have to focus on racism everyday but some folks, obviously, have no choice.

So what’s the problem, is Bernie a traditional old lefty who really believes that class trumps everything? Quite possibly-even though all the evidence for anyone with eyes to see and a heart to feel-will tell you that a relatively wealthy, even a very wealthy person-of-color, will still experience the destructive force of white supremacy at many points in their lives. So long as racism is a deep, almost impenetrable part of our nature as Americans, there is no hiding place, no safe house, no shelter from its ugliness, its deadly consequences. This movement, some call it the New Civil Rights Movement, using social media, is addressing what has existed but been invisible to white Americans for so long.

So on facebook and my local Democratic club listserve, for instance, when I brought up that Bernie, despite his huge turnouts had recently failed a test at NetRoots Nation, the response surprised me. Some found the problem with the #BlackLivesMatter folks and some with Bernie. Most missed the point.

In fact the first response I often saw from old Lefties was that perhaps this was a conspiracy by Hillary’s people to damage Bernie to which I have to say, paranoia only gets us so far. BUT even if it were true (and it’s not, that’s dismissive) how come Bernie couldn’t respond by listening or by talking about his plans to dismantle institutionalized racism? He saw what they said to O’Malley yet decided to carry on with his usual speech.

The comments ranged from, “I am at a loss to understand the tactics of shouting down speakers. I have always been at a loss to understand that kind of action be it from the Left or the Right. Let’s work to solve the problem of racism in America and not make it worse by helping elect Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Those who make progressive candidates look bad in the press especially when the candidates have done or said significant things about issue in the past help the opposition not their cause.”

Or, “Were there meetings with Sanders beforehand by the BLM folks? The gal who spoke was speaking out of emotion. The issue is very important, and very emotional. So are lots of others. What will we see next? Pro-Palestinian folks storm the stage at the next Bernie event? Gun control activists? Global warming folks?” True but that’s not the problem of the people who are leading the campaign against white racism, a movement, which does, in fact, work in coalition with most of those other folks. The point Bernie’s defenders are missing is that he cannot succeed if Black voters doubt his concern and his sincerity (Bernie’s strength, normally.)

Given our knowledge of the “new Jim Crow” times we are in, this comment kinda blew me away, “ALL of the issues are important because ALL lives matter. Factions need to learn to work together so we can accomplish better lives for all of us. We need to be a coalition, not individual groups clamoring to be on stage all the time. People championing individual causes have learned to play to the media for attention (as they needed to). Now they need to step back and stand in solidarity with all of the people this system is crushing.” It’s not a bad statement, clearly one that is knowledgeable but the, “now they need to step back,” was all I could see. Really, you wanna tell Black folk and other POC to step back, to wait, seriously?

A white woman who was there described the impact on her, “I would not say the goal was to shout down either candidate……This candidates’ forum was large and well attended. So besides just addressing the candidates, it seemed they wanted the conference/activists to engage on the issues of police brutality and the loss of black lives, and this was the best opportunity to be really visible….Many were crying. It was powerful and emotional for me to witness and for all the participants. It was close to the stage and I was next to them, clearly witnessing all as it unfolded.”

She went on, “Bernie really should have dropped the script and taken the moment to show empathy and connection to those activists right when he walked on stage. Instead he came off like a cold, political operative. He could have just said, ” I feel your pain, black lives matter and I absolutely want to engage with you to address these issues”. And she added that “He really appeared like a very disconnected old white guy at that moment. He then dashed off stage without a goodbye. He had scheduled a smaller meeting after with some black leaders which he canceled.”

Another one of my friends looked up Bernie’s statements on the issues involved and had this to say, “I went back and looked at the various statements he has sent out since his campaign began. There is essentially nothing on race. The only message I could find that had to do with our nation’s current turmoil on race was a message of condolence to the families of the people who were murdered in South Carolina. Even that message did not talk about the need for America to move ahead and bring true equality to all its citizens. It just said: ‘we are all with you in our hearts.’ Very inadequate.”

Ashley Yates, one of the organizers, was asked “Why Bernie”, on MSNBC and responded that Bernie is just the person they need to address and I can’t disagree. If he is the one we’ve been waiting for, he needs to respond like he knows something about us, about all of us. Don’t be mad at the activists, irritated maybe, but you might find you’re more disappointed in Bernie, since this is a self-inflicted wound. As Yates said, “We need bold and courageous leadership right now. We don’t need people who are gonna be cowardly and people who are going to be defensive.”

For some of us, the hope that Bernie brings is tinged with the sadness,the beginning of mourning that the White House will return to its previous state of whiteness or as described by Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show, “The UnBlackening.” Despite whatever disappointments we’ve had with Barack Obama, I will miss his intelligence, his wit, the leadership of his brilliant wife and the sight of his beautiful family, along with his unique outlook on the world. I will miss the time we had a Black president who despite his desire to bridge the gap, got it-you knew he got it.

As an old white lady, I will admit to my moments of irritation with disruption, annoyance with having to prove my progressive, race conscious bonafides over and over, but I am also uplifted when I despair and grateful when I’m angry. These smart young Black, Brown, and Asian women and men are fighting to not only survive their lives but to live them fully and they will not stop for anybody.

3 thoughts on “#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie, and me, an Old White Lady Speaks

  1. Thanks for these thoughtful words. As someone watching from Europe, I really appreciate your commentary on “what’s happening” as pre-election moves into PrimeTime.

  2. I too am old, white, female and sorry that Bernie, given the warning of what happened to the other candidate, didn’t address the problem of violence against black people right off. It doesn’t have to be either address class or address race. It has to be both. The ’63 March on Washington, which I was at, was a march “for Jobs and Justice” not for justice only, and people keep forgetting the jobs part. I do think Occupy, which finally got people talking about class, set the stage for Bernie, and we haven’t seen yet what Black Lives Matter is setting the stage for.

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