Look, I like Bernie Sanders. I believe in him. When it comes to this country, he seems to believe in fairness above all else, and so do I. Judging from his growing popularity, a lot of other people seem to, as well. But the problem with fairness is that it’s easy to believe in when you’re at the bottom. It’s much harder when you’re at the top.
On August 8, Sanders was speaking in Seattle as part of a celebration of the 80th anniversary of Social Security. (By the way, when the Social Security Act was passed it deliberately excluded Black people.) His speech was interrupted by two protestors associated with Black Lives Matter, Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford. The women took the stage and Johnson began speaking about something that Sanders, for most of his campaign, had not: the violence that we, as Black Americans, experience.
It was a tough crowd. Mostly Johnson was booed, and I get it. It was an unpleasant surprise. It was rude. People were uncomfortable. Bernie was there to preach fairness to his crowd about their issues. They feel like they understand what it means to be at the bottom. They believe in fairness. Then Johnson interrupted. Some in the crowd screamed at her with true rage — “How dare you?”
When Johnson expressed the need for the crowd to honor the death of Michael Brown, a woman cried out, “We’ve already done it!” At one point someone even called out for Johnson to be tased.
Suggesting that violence be done to a woman for speaking against violence is horrifying. “We’ve already done it!” is a disgusting response. These are not the words of people who truly believe in fairness. I mean, seriously, you can’t sound more melodramatically elitist than rage-screaming “How dare you?” That’s some Downton Abbey shit.
In addition to an inability to understand fairness, there also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of protest. I spoke to Amy Halsted, associate director of the Maine People’s Alliance and Maine People’s Resource Center, about her understanding of protest.
“Protest does not seek to create comfort. Period,” Halsted said. “And I think that power in democracy, and who gets power and who retains power, is fundamentally reliant on a level of comfort and acquiescence that protest disrupts.”
She continued: “I think people misunderstand protest at times and ask, ‘What came out of that? What law was passed? What mind was changed? What election was won?’ I don’t think protests, in terms of the trajectory of how you win change, are that close to the ultimate outcome. I think they are much further back in the sequence of how you both change public policy and enhance public consciousness in a way that creates a demand for that policy, that elects the leaders who will vote for that policy.”
There is a view that Willaford and Johnson’s protest has set the Black Lives Matter movement back. Halsted disagrees. “Their tactic catalyzed a broad discussion of their goals. This has immense value for their movement. Sometimes a visible protest is necessary to force people who have the privilege of not thinking about race to think about race, if only in that moment.”
Here is where we are at this moment: According to the Washington Post, as of August 8, 40 percent of all unarmed people killed by police this year have been black men. We are only 6 percent of the population.
If there were white progressives on bus number 2857 in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, I’m sure some of them were furious that a colored woman was inconveniencing them. I’m sure some of them were absolutely certain that particular moment was not the best moment for her to protest. I’m sure some of them sided with the bus driver in attempting to stop the public interruption. After all, the driver was only doing his job. He wasn’t the source of the problem. In fact, he was helping her get where she needed to be!
The problem was the system, those progressives would have argued, and you can’t fight the system by picking a fight with the man who’s your only hope of getting where you need to be. Furthermore, inconveniencing a bus full of people who very well could be on your side can only hurt your cause.
Although not everyone on the segregated bus could see what was unfair about that situation, everyone can see it now.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker and former Videoport employee. He lives in Portland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.