No one is above critique. Democrats have, for the past 50 years, benefited from the unwavering support of African-Americans, but have routinely silenced our voices whenever it was time to address systemic racism and white supremacy. In fact, many progressives reading these first two sentences have recoiled in disgust and are questioning whether they should continue reading. Similarly, in the face of organized and persistent action from Black Lives Matter, many white progressives have devolved into the same racist lecturing and faux-reasoning as the conservatives towards whom they incessantly point the finger of guilt. The Democratic Party has a race problem and is not above critique.
When Black Lives Matter protested at Netroots Nation 2015, a legion of Bernie Sanders’ supporters rushed in to block any criticism of the Senator. But the truth is, both Senator Sanders and Martin O’Malley handled that event incorrectly. Furthermore, it was because of the criticism and the political action of BLM that both men began immediately to address the issues pertinent to BLM. Much of the ire Senator Sanders is suffering from is the result of his overzealous fans who “accidentally” allowed their latent racism to show while blocking criticisms of the Senator. Senator Sanders and his supporters are not above critique.
But you know who else is not above critique? Black Lives Matter.
Don’t Lecture; Listen
One of the unofficial rules of Black Twitter is for “allies” and newcomers to “be quiet and learn; don’t lecture, listen.” The idea behind this credo is that, because allies could never experience what it is to be black, they are in no position to lecture African-Americans about their experience in America. Much like I could never tell a woman or a LGBTQ person what their experience in America is or is not, white allies are often told not lecture people-of-color about anger that was born from these experiences. I do not imagine there will ever be a critique from white America about BLM that is acceptable or that can break the impenetrable armor of “Don’t lecture; listen.” I get it.
And since my Twitter numbers aren’t large enough to warrant the faux-legitimacy that is often attributed to someone with their own legion, I decided that I would wait and listen. Besides: I’m just another guy with a blog and a podcast.
I waited all day to hear from the various leaders of the national BLM movement and the only thing that came from the official Black Lives Matter Twitter account was a denial that they issued any apology or created a petition:
We have not issued a public apology, neither have we made any public statements demanding an apology.
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) August 10, 2015
The #BlackLivesMatter organization did not create any petitions demanding apology from Seattle based organizers.
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) August 10, 2015
But these tweets do not necessarily co-sign the actions on Saturday. And then I considered the fact that many of the leaders of BLM were busy being arrested in Ferguson and had no time to address Saturday’s action. On the scale of importance, maybe correcting two of their own fell to the bottom of their priorities list considering the Oathkeepers were patrolling the streets of Ferguson displaying fully their white privilege. I get it.
Then came all of the “intellectual” thought pieces and tweets explaining why what happened on Saturday should be okay with our so-called white allies. The echo chamber of social media was fired up, and the usual lines were drawn. It became evident that, although there was no official word from Black Lives Matter, many in Black Twitter stood behind the protest on Saturday and lectured white progressives on how they should not have been angry at Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford. Besides, “white progressives shouldn’t lecture us about our anger.”
So Allow Me
I wasn’t entirely sure about how I felt concerning their actions primarily because I don’t subscribe to respectability politics and I like to digest a situation before I speak out. I was undecided, that is, until I read their press release:
There is no business as usual while Black lives are lost. We will ensure this by any means necessary.
With the strength of our ancestors and for the future of our children,
Black Lives Matter Seattle Co-Founders
Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford
This hashtag spoke louder than any of their well-meaning intentions wrapped in their ear-piercing tantrums on Saturday. The gall of anyone to demand another bow down and completely submit to their demands reeks of delusions of grandeur and immaturity. Allyship is not one group being subservient to another. This applies to both sides of the equation. No one has to bow down to anyone else. And the fact that they have this idea in their heads suggests that Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford –and anyone justifying their behavior –do not fully understand nuances and tensions that are birthed from true equality. And yet, this hashtag encapsulates perfectly the difference between what happened at Netroots Nation and Seattle.
Netroots Nation was disruptive, uncomfortable, strategic and effective. It forced the hand of all of the major candidates and strengthened the position of BLM leaders. At that moment, BLM did something that not even the Civil Rights movement was able to accomplish. They grabbed the agenda of a political party by the throat and let it be known that black votes could never again be taken for granted. Any candidate who wanted the support of black voters could no longer push black issues to the background. I applauded that action because it was significant both from an ideological and a politically pragmatic perspective and was brilliantly done.
BLM had the attention and the agenda of the Democratic Party. Unless orders were sent to Seattle from national BLM leaders to shut Bernie down because he wasn’t listening to them at the negotiating table at which all of their previous actions had given them priority, then there was nothing strategic about the actions on Saturday. If Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford’s received no so such instructions then their actions amounted to nothing more than a temper tantrum that undermined their own goals.
And to see so-called leaders in our community vilify the response of Bernie Sanders’ crowd without holding Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford accountable for their own actions is as wrong as white progressives ignoring the actions of police officers that directly created the conditions that led to the deaths of so many African-Americans. You cannot divorce outcomes from the actions that directly led to that outcome. The mission of Black Lives Matter is unquestionably noble. Nevertheless, we cannot lay down principle and reason simply because we agree with the cause.
Human Dignity and Pride
Consider this: If someone held a gun to your head and demanded that you “bow down,” what would you do? Eventually, you will have an epiphany and realize that, at some point, your life is not as valuable as your dignity, pride, and self-respect. If you are like me, you will refuse to bow down and will conclude that, if this is the price of my survival, I would rather die. The irony of this statement is not lost on me as this is exactly that to which Black Lives Matter is alerting America. We would rather die than to bow down to a nation and its political parties that are complicit in our pain or indifferent to our plight.
But one must also realize that the people against whom we protest are just as human as we are. Demanding that they “bow down” will inevitably be met with the same response — and rightfully so. Indeed, I would think less of any person that would cower and bow to another for fear of the ramifications. No one bows to anyone. We are all men and women. We are all human.
Concurrently, politicians and coalitions at some point will determine that if the price of the BLM vote is that they must bow down and relinquish their own human dignity, then it only stands to reason that they would rather not have that vote at all. If candidates must “bow down” every time someone finds enough courage to make a scene, then you will run directly into the brick wall of another person’s dignity and their own pride. Or did you think they would simply lay it down because you raised your voice?
Whereas at Netroots Nation BLM forced them to listen, BLM Seattle is now forcing them to walk away from even mentioning the name.
Duverger’s Law v. BLM
Some of the more pernicious among us will undoubtedly say, “So what? Let’s walk away.” Others are using this collision of egos as a means of convincing themselves and others to opt out of the political process as a whole– almost as though this is the ultimate form of protest. Apparently they believe this is going to punish the political parties. This, to me, shows an astonishing level political naiveté. Willingly disenfranchising yourself does the work of those conservatives and progressives who never wanted you to be able to vote in the first place. And if the entire purpose of our protests has been to fix the problems in our system, like it or not, that means that you must fully and fervently engage inside the political system. Protesting is not the ends: protests are merely the means. And those who suggest otherwise are either irresponsible, naive, or both.
Furthermore, if you want to accomplish something politically in the United States, it has to be done on the back of one of the two major political parties. I hear arguments about why we should support a third-party all of the time, and I think to myself, someone hasn’t done their homework. I won’t give you an entire Political Science lecture, but the reality of the American political system is that, because of its structure, a third-party is likely never to rise to the level such that it can compete with the two major parties.
If you have political goals, they must be accomplished through one of our two parties. Do your “Googles” learn Duverger’s Law, and stop chasing fanciful delusions while simultaneously suggesting people ignore the one revolutionary tool that America can not silence: the vote.
No One is Above Critique
This article will undoubtedly be met with fierce opposition from people with whom I otherwise stand in complete solidarity. And perhaps on some points I may be proven wrong. I’m not above critique. But one thing I know for certain: if we continue to insulate ourselves behind the confidence that the “yes-men” and “yes-women” of social media give us and the perfectly impenetrable notion that no one has the right to lecture us or tell us we are wrong, then we will be seduced by the sound of our own voices and the gracefulness of our 140 characters.
So I simply offer to BLM the same advice Black Twitter offers allies and newcomers: stop lecturing and take a moment to listen.
Watch: Black Lives Matter v Bernie Sanders
Featured Image via video screen capture