So today my son and I had the opportunity to go up to Seattle and listen to Bernie Sanders speak at the Westlake Center in Seattle, where a rally to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 50th anniversary of Medicare was being held. We were pretty excited, and I thought it would be neat for my son to feel the energy of a like-minded crowd at a massive political rally.
We arrived about an hour before the event started, so we grabbed some lunch at the Westlake Center eatery first. Then we worked our way through the crowd, taking handouts and giving donations to campaigns and causes we believe in. I bought my son a #Fightfor15 t-shirt, and he picked out a #blacklivesmatter button flair for my purse.
Then 1 pm rolled around and the crowd started thickening up. We found this little playplace area with a one of those metal spider/ climby thingies, and Kidling swarmed his way up to the top so he could actually see the stage.
The rally started off with some musical numbers by local artists. First the Raging Grannies, who I am not familiar with, then Daniel Pak and Geo Quibuyen, two more local musicians activists I had never heard of, and finally Jim Page. I’m afraid I’m not very into the the up-and-coming music scene … I’m pretty hard of hearing and not very musically inclined. So none of these acts were familiar to me — but they were all pleasant to listen to and did a good job of warming up the crowd.
Then we had the speakers. My favorites were Kshama Sawant of the Seattle City Council; Marcelas Owens, a Youth leader of the grassroots Washington CAN! movement; and Lynne Dodson, the Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council/AFL-CIO.
Sawant and Dodson in particular were great — they really warmed up the crowd and spoke to the need for the people of America to reclaim their political voices from the corporations and billionaire elite. They both referenced the history of labor and civil rights movements in the USA, and the reality that what benefits we do enjoy were not handed to us by the political and business elite of this country, but rights the American people earned through collective action and protest movements.
On a personal note, I was even more inspired by the fact that oft-marginalized voices dominated the stage. Sawant, an Indian American woman. Gerald Hankerson of the NAACP, a black man and former felon. Heather Villanueva from the Senior Community Strength Organizer, SEIU 775, a Hispanic woman. Rebecca Saldana, the Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage, another powerful voice for change representing women, people of color, and minority communities.
The voices of oft-marginalized communities far outnumbered the white male voices at today’s rally, and that was a really exciting and moving thing. Additionally, almost every single speaker voiced support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, referenced tomorrow’s anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and noted the need for conscious inclusivity as we move forward in building grassroots community movements calling for workers rights, removing corporate money from politics, and ending police brutality and corruption.
They were historically literate voices, too; referencing historical labor and civil rights movements and the rights gained by American protest movements. Those historical civil rights movements have largely been remembered as headed by male voices, with the female activists and activists of color overwhelmingly silenced in the official histories, so it was a wonderful and moving thing to see so many voices from so many communities represented, united in championing the rights of the American workers.
Finally, the end of the rally came, and Bernie Sanders made his way to the podium to speak.
He got about 5 words out, and then two women rushed the stage and took the mic from him. They identified themselves as the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and said they would not let Bernie Sanders speak until they had their say.
First they requested 4.5 minutes of silence to honor Michael Brown, promising that Bernie Sanders could speak when the 4.5 minutes were up. I’m upset to report that the crowd didn’t respond well to this request, and there were quite a few people yelling variations of, “Bitch!”, “Shut up!”, “Nobody cares!”, and “Get off the stage, asshole!”
I was surprised and dismayed by the interruption, too, but I didn’t feel their request for a moment of silence was out of line. At that point, I was also sympathetic to their actions, viewing it as free speech/ democracy in action, so a pretty cool moment. They felt — fairly or unfairly — that their voices were being silenced and not represented due to arbitrary distinctions, and they took action to draw attention to their movement and bring their equal voice to the situation.
After the 4.5 minutes of silence to honor Michael Brown, though, they didn’t cede the mic. Instead, they gave a little speech condemning the white bourgeoisie Seattle liberal establishment as liberal faux-progressive racists, then insisted that Bernie Sanders needed to apologize for how he handled a similar interruption at the Netroots Nation rally … but they wouldn’t give him the mic in order to address their concerns.
See, at this point I started losing sympathy for their chosen method of communicating their frustrations. I could definitely understand their frustration with the status quo, and their sense of feeling silenced and disenfranchised … but I think their protest/taking of the stage would have been more effective and recruited more allies to their perspective if after the 4.5 minutes of silence they requested in honor of Michael Brown, they had ceded the mic back to Sanders and allowed him to publicly respond to their concerns.
Sanders waited patiently off to the side for the entire 30 minutes they controlled the stage. He honored the 4.5 minutes of silence, and even lifted his hand in solidarity. Additionally, he was the final speaker following a roster of people of color and women, almost all of whom had mentioned #BlackLivesMatter, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the necessity for this workers rights movement to be inclusive of all voices.
So the BLM contingent wasn’t exactly being ignored or silenced in this rally. People of color (generally speaking) and black voices (specifically) were front and center throughout the day, and I think the protesters who rushed the stage and completely prevented Sanders from speaking may have ultimately done more harm than good to their cause, which is upsetting because it’s a valid and reasonable cause that should have allies.
Instead, the protesters representing themselves as speaking for the BLM movement not only refused to leave the stage, they also refused to let Sanders speak or respond to their demands. I agree with the #blacklivesmatter movement, and support them. I didn’t even mind that they stormed the stage, initially. It seemed perfectly reasonable for them to ask for 4.5 minutes of silence before letting Sanders speak. I was much more disturbed when it became apparent that they had no plans to let the rally continue, and that their true intention was to silence Bernie Sanders and prevent him from speaking. By preventing Sanders from speaking AT ALL, they clearly alienated a lot of potential allies in the crowd.
EDIT: In discussing the event later with my husband, he suggested that perhaps the women who rushed the stage felt … unsafe and trapped on the stage by the language hurled at them, and perhaps reluctant/ resistant to giving into the demands of the angry crowd who was fulfilling their expectations of sexist, racist tone policing.
On a personal note, I was really upset by the language of the other people in the crowd when it became apparent that Bernie Sanders would not be able to speak. They were screaming some incredibly ugly, violent, and sexually charged invective at these women.
One young boy sitting up by my son began to chant, “All lives matter,” apparently unaware or unconcerned that this slogan was started by white people who are uncomfortable discussing the reality of the disparate impact of racism and are in denial about the disproportionate amount of murders happening to people of color due to police brutality and institutionalized racism.
He was cheered on by a woman in a black t-shirt who identified herself as a reporter; and the two of them actually chanted this hateful slogan in between yelling phrases like, “Shut up, bitch,” and “Get off the stage, whore,” during the requested 4.5 minutes of silence to honor Michael Brown. It was really nauseating.
People in the crowd randomly broke out in screams and boos, too. People standing next to me kept screaming for them to shut up and get off the stage, and yelling encouragements for the rally organizers to forcefully kick them off the stage or punch them in the face. It was incredibly disturbing and upsetting to be surrounded by a pulsating crowd of white people screaming sexualized and violent insults at two black women.
There were a few of us sprinkled throughout the crowd trying to hush the viciousness — saying, “Let them speak,” and, “Black lives matter,” but we were definitely in the minority and out-shouted by the people who were furious that Sanders couldn’t speak.
There were black people and people of color in the crowd, too, and it was heartbreaking to see the way they pulled in on themselves as the angry whites around them hurled violent words and hatred at the two women interrupting the rally.
An older black woman near me who had been enjoying the speeches and speaking happily with the two white retirement-age people through most of the rally spent the last 30 minutes staring silently at the ground as her recent conversational companions screamed for the #blacklivesmatter protestors to get off the stage and go back to the ghetto.
A young Indian man with long hair and ruddy brown skin who had been bouncing around standing on the benches and happily taking pictures a little earlier sat down with his shoulders hunched, pulling into himself as the whites around him turned ugly.
A brown-skinned Latino toddler who had been playing under the playground equipment started to cry and ran to her parents.
The white people shouting at the “bitches” and “assholes” on the stage didn’t seem to notice the people of color in the crowd; recent participants in the rally suddenly on edge with the swelling of racial tension. It was heartbreaking to see the way people screamed insults and threats at the women who rushed the stage, and I was both disappointed and frightened by the anger of the crowd. It seemed outsize to the disappointment of not hearing Sanders speak.
The message of the day prior to the #blacklivesmatter protesters rushing the stage had been one of inclusivity and grassroots movement. It had been a call to progressive coalitions to join hands in true American tradition and take back the voice of the people from the corporate elites and billionaires trying to silence us and buy out our democracy. There was a sense of shared purpose and solidarity.
After the #blacklivesmatter protesters rushed the stage and prevented Sanders from speaking, that sense of solidarity was shattered. It could have been regained if they had let Sanders speak after the 4.5 minutes of silence — their voices would have been honored, and Sanders could have still addressed the waiting crowd. Win/win.
Instead, by silencing him completely, they splintered the solidarity that had moments before united the crowd. They angered a lot of potential allies. Worst of all, I have the horrible suspicion that they erased so much of the goodwill and outreach built up by the many community organizers and people of color who had spoken before they rushed the stage.