Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave

What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?

In the mostly white professional-class suburbs where most of my friends live, I have frequently seen this bumpersticker:

It tends to show up on Volvos, Priuses, and other cars popular among middle-aged women with advanced degrees, though now and then it appears (in the company of many other stickers) on a less expensive car that is as much billboard as transportation.

The point (which is well understood by the kind of people who have spent their lives testing whether a glass ceiling will break if you hit your head against it hard enough) is that playing by the rules may keep you out of trouble, but it probably won’t get you where you want to go.

In the 70s and 80s when this sticker was becoming popular, the rules in just about every bureaucracy and corporate ladder in the world were made and adjudicated by men. So if a woman played by them, kept to the agenda, didn’t interrupt, waited her turn, and colored inside the lines, she would likely wind up in whatever place men had left on the org chart for a well-behaved woman, a place safely isolated from the levers of power. So the turn she was waiting for would never come. The evidence and arguments she had assembled in her carefully-written memo would likely never be read, or, if read, would never be taken seriously.

In some parts of the economy and government we’ve gotten past that by now, to the point that many young women don’t grasp why confrontational feminism was ever necessary. But even today, when women reach for the top rungs of the ladder, the standards are different. A Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina has to walk a narrow path that Donald Trump (or any male candidate) isn’t constrained by: She must be forceful without sounding angry or shrill, authoritative without talking down, dressed to perfection but not obsessed with appearance. Those rules — still mostly made and adjudicated by men — will tie a woman in knots if she lets them.

Even today, a well-behaved woman has trouble making history.

Now let’s think about well-behaved black women. How much history are they going to make?

That’s the question to start with if you want to understand disruptive protests like the one that kept Bernie Sanders from talking about Social Security in Seattle.

The Seattle protest makes no sense if you come at it from the point of view of an aging, white, progressive, Sanders supporter who came out wanting to hear about Social Security: Neither you nor Sanders had any ill intent. The meeting wasn’t a plot to maintain white supremacy. There was an announced topic, a topic that needs the public’s attention. Sanders wanted to talk about it and you wanted to hear him.

And then those damn women got in the way.

Their tactics are easy to criticize: By targeting Sanders, they’re pissing off the whites most likely to be on their side. On TV, they looked really rude and obnoxious, making white viewers less sympathetic with their cause. It would have been a lot braver if they’d disrupted a Republican rally, where they might have wound up in jail or worse.

“Why are you picking on us?” the progressives wonder. “We’re the good guys. If you’d just asked nicely, we might have paid attention to your issue.”

Why can’t you behave? Wait your turn. We’ll get to your concerns at a more appropriate time.

On her Facebook page, Dominique Hazzard answers:

People are always wanting to know- why are black people rioting? Why are twoc of interrupting the president? Why are those black women disrupting the Netroots panel? Why are they shutting down Bernie’s campaign stop? Why are the coloreds doing things that *i* consider to be unstrategic?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In later post, she addresses the “Why Bernie?” question:

IF YOU WANT TO BE STRATEGIC, you target the people with power who are in your sphere of influence, and who can actually be persuaded to give you what you want. A lot of the time (not all of the time, but often), those people are your allies- allies who are close to getting it right but not quite there.
(Bernie Bern is not ‘there’ yet. Last time he got interrupted, it was disruptors wanting to talk about the criminalization of black women. He centered his answer on unemployment… mere days after Sandra Bland died *on her way to a new job*)

Disrupting a Huckabee rally would be a worse idea, because not only would he not listen, but

your action might backfire, causing Mike Huckabee to double down and racists to respect him even more, rewarding him with more votes.

But however it looked to white suburbanites watching on TV, the Sanders protest got results. A new racial justice page appeared on the Sanders web site, with detailed proposals that met with substantial approval.* The bar has been raised for Clinton and the other Democrats.

Even more than that, though, is the mirror this event places in front of white liberals. (Protests are always part street theater, and the response a protest evokes is part of the production.)

Racism in America today is largely underground, and among liberals it’s completely underground: Nobody ever comes up to me throwing the N-word around and asking how we’re going to keep “them” in their place. But underground is not the same as gone, and a lot of us don’t see our own racism until we’re confronted. That’s why it was instructive to watch how angry the crowd got in Seattle, and how quickly all the paternalistic let-me-tell-you-how-to-protest-better responses popped up.

Very few white liberals’ first reaction — not even mine, I have to admit — was to ask: “Why do you feel like you have to do this?” And even those who asked that question seldom waited for an answer or listened to that answer.

Bernie, to his credit, seems to have listened: not immediately, not in the moment, but within a few days. Maybe the rest of us can follow his lead.

* A legitimate question is: What was wrong with the Sanders platform before this racial justice page was added?

From a BLM point of view, the problem was that Sanders’ message had been class-based and largely color-blind, as if the problems faced by black people in America were just artifacts that stem from being unemployed or underpaid or living in dangerous neighborhoods or having bad public schools. Just create more good entry-level jobs, and solve the crime and education problems in general, and black people will benefit.

And that’s true as far as it goes: If blacks are disproportionately poor and the poor are disproportionately black, helping the poor will help the black community. But what BLM is trying to get across is that race is not a side-issue; the obstacles blacks face do not arise merely from unfortunate circumstances or historical accident. Racism is a very real problem here and now. White people may not like to talk about race, but you can’t solve racial problems in a color-blind way.

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  • Old and apparently misled and confused...  On August 17, 2015 at 8:20 am

    So all the rhetoric about “content of your character, and not the color of your skin” was no sense. Thanks for clearing that up. Sorry, I got the directive wrong 50 years ago.

    • Rob Archer  On August 17, 2015 at 9:01 am

      For an understanding of that speech and where it positions white and black relations, you should try reading the entire speech, and more of his writing. You are doing the very Right-wing, neo-con action of cherry picking MLK so that he seems safe and color-blind.

      Which, to be honest, I also used to do all the time.

    • JELC  On August 17, 2015 at 9:24 am

      That response fundamentally misses the issue we’re dealing with here.

      What MLK sought was a world in which you would be judged by the content of your character and not the colour of your skin. He never once said that world could be achieved through colour blind tactics, or by quietly sitting and waiting your turn. MLK said “a riot is the language of the unheard” and although he personally advocated a non-violent approach, non-violent is NOT the same as non-disruptive.

      And if you had asked him whether you needed to recognize the problems that arise specifically from race in the United States, do you honestly think he would have said that you could solve problems of race by not thinking about them in racial terms? I guarantee you that his answer would have been no.

      Is race a social construct in many ways? Yes. Does that mean we can ignore it and it will go away? No. Because there are people out there who do not ignore it, and because social constructs run deeper than conscious thought. If you choose to consciously ignore race, what you are actually doing is giving your unconscious prejudices free reign to do what they want. And I guarantee you have those prejudices. If you want to think about it, check out Project Implicit from Harvard University — it’s goal is to identify unconscious assumptions that inform our judgment even though we usually don’t realize we are making them. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

    • weeklysift  On August 17, 2015 at 10:25 am

      I explained why the color-blind reading of MLK was wrong a couple years ago: https://weeklysift.com/2013/09/02/mlk-sanitized-for-their-protection/

  • David Mills  On August 17, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Doug I really look forward to these blogs.I have sent this week on my Facebook I describe you as a hybrid of FrankRich, John Stewart and ?????

    Best wishes D


  • Avram (@avram_levi)  On August 17, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I think BLM is doing the right thing – Bernie’s plans will likely lift people out of poverty but it still won’t address the compartmentalization of the society. Blacks will still be a part of the “lower” class, it’s just the level of low will rise somewhat.

  • Kim Lindaberry  On August 17, 2015 at 10:32 am

    . . . After reading this I can better understand the rational of interrupting Bernie Sanders however I don’t think it is wise to completely shutdown a rally. I think it would have been more productive for BLM to make their point but then let Bernie resume his place on the stage and finish what he started. I know I would have been really pissed off if I had traveled miles and spend my time and money finding a place to park and then wait for Bernie to come out to talk only to have him leave without really getting to also talk . . . So I get it, make your point but don’t totally deny everyone else what they also came to hear. If every Bernie Sanders Rally was disrupted to the point that no one ever heard what he has to say then people will stop showing up and you wouldn’t have anyone in an audience to shout your grievances to . . . Hopefully now that BLM has a board on Bernie’s platform you will move onto other candidates to make your point . . .

    • DAN OCONNELL  On August 17, 2015 at 11:18 am

      Well said. Saved me time.

    • lucybeckett35  On August 18, 2015 at 5:09 am

      I don’t think you get it at all! You think you do…you say you do…but then you immediately start telling them how they should have done it, or done it better. You are telling black folks, because you are white and therefore better than, that you should be the leader and they should follow you. Because you have ‘white privilege’ that’s just what comes naturally to you. Black folks are sick unto death of that attitude; stand aside and listen to what they are saying, okay? Once you understand about ‘white privilege’, everything will fall into place. I was where you are not very long ago. Forget about your concept of ‘rudeness.’ The blacks who sat down at a lunch counter were certainly disruptive!!

      • Name  On September 7, 2015 at 9:25 pm

        The lunch counter was Jefferson Davis’s lunch counter, not Michael Schwerner’s lunch counter.

      • gneeva  On March 8, 2016 at 7:54 am

        Lucy, I understand your point. Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” was disruptive. She’s the perfect example of the kind of disruption that’s needed. But she made a case while pointing out the flaws in the system. Her speech is historic because of its substance, not because it disrupted an event run by men. Had the #BlackLivesMatter activists given that kind of speech we’d be talking about that, not whether or not they should have interrupted Sanders. Maybe they didn’t give that kind of speech because they don’t know how. If not, they need to find someone that can provide them with the rhetoric they need to use when they present their cause to unwilling audiences, as well as willing ones. I’d rather they didn’t disrupt, but that’s just my opinion as a former student activist that didn’t use these tactics.

    • gneeva  On March 8, 2016 at 7:34 am

      I totally agree. Much better to have met with him privately. I was a student activist back in the day and we didn’t hi-jack events. We tried to set up meetings and when that didn’t work, I used the press to call for a march.

      I’d been expelled from my HBCU and had moved to a different state. I watched in horror as the evening news showed students rioting at Prairie View A&M (Sandra Bland’s alma mater) and the National Guard trying to maintain order.

      That was not what I intended, but a warrant was issued for my arrest for inciting a riot. However, phone interviews with the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle telling my side of the story made it clear that students were not too blame for rebelling against a repressive school environment.

      I was editor-in-chief of the school paper which was censored by the Board of Regents, forcing me to start the underground paper which called for a student march. The students rioted after the President laughed at their demands, which included that four students suspended for activism be re-instated, including me.

      When the newspaper stories came out my academic scholarship was restored and I was no longer blacklisted from attending Texas colleges and univesities. But my parents, who lived in Oklahoma at the time, like me, were from Texas and knew what would happen if I returned. What happened to Sandra Bland.

      That was 45 years ago. Student activism was different then. It was much more pervasive and in many cases peaceful and none-threatening. Of course, the media mostly showed the violence, but most of us were peaceniks.

      While #BlackLivesMatter is peaceful, hijacking events as a “gotcha” move that is alienating. I suggest the activists ask to meet with people rather than interrupting paid events to create a sound byte or YouTube video. THEN if requests are ignored, such actions might be taken after all less intrusive actions are exhausted.

      I’m sure both Sanders and Clinton are willing to have a discussion with these activists. Take it from an old school peacenik, they are fortunate to have public figures willing to talk with them and address their issues in the appropriate forum.

  • Wayne Johnson  On August 17, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I understand a little better as to the reasoning of why BLM protesters shut down Sander’s rally, but it just doesn’t make sense to me as to why they choose Bernie Sanders? I mean is there any other “mainstream” presidential contender right now that has done more for racial inequality than him? Any rational and educated person will agree that real, meaningful change is gradual and although Sanders might have not been directly an advocate to the BLM movement, he at least aligns himself with many of the same values.

    I think I am just wondering that since there is NO presidential contender that exclusively advocates for the BLM movement, why would they shut down the one candidate that is the closest advocate that they have?

    • JELC  On August 17, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      And now, because they disrupted his events and got his attention he has become an explicit advocate for the BLM movement. That was the whole point of this article.

      White progressives frequently fail to pay attention to issues of race. I have been guilty of this as well. And if people of colour want to get us to pay attention to them, they kind of have to yell and scream. They REALLY needed to get directly on the radar of at least one presidential candidate to make their issue an election issue. They did so. And now that Sanders has explicitly adopted a racial justice platform, it puts direct pressure on other democratic candidates (Clinton) to do the same. Otherwise, Sanders wins the vote of anyone for whom this is a sufficiently important issue.

      That seems like a pretty viable strategy to me. That closest advocate they have is now a closer advocate, and his shift will put political pressure on other left-of-centre candidates to follow suit.

      • Wayne Johnson  On August 17, 2015 at 4:49 pm

        I disagree about getting people’s attention. I know many people still believe in the whole “even bad publicity is still publicity” idea, but I don’t think it works that way. It doesn’t work for the Tea Party and it doesn’t work for BLM. The public is very quick to dismiss people and groups that are making disturbances. Like the crazy person yelling on the bus or train or the car alarm constantly blaring all night.

      • JELC  On August 18, 2015 at 9:35 am

        Except it literally worked. Sanders now has a racial justice page on his website, and he hired a lawyer connected to the BLM movement who is working with him on related issues. Disturbance and disruption have been part of every significant social movement, because you have to get people’s attention before there is even a chance that they will hear what you have to say.

      • Name  On September 7, 2015 at 9:51 pm

        If Marissa Janae Johnson and buddy had dumped on Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Rubio or other teafascist’s rally, you know that would have caught the attention (and continued interest) of “white progressives”.
        Those particular BLM activists ‘picked’ on Bernie because it was easy and MJJ is young.
        At a Trump rally, the BLMs would have needed to defend themselves with firearms.

        If you’re being bullied, it isn’t practical to bully a friend, in order to make your bully giggle (check the tweets of tea goons regarding JJ’s choice of target)

        However, I’ll gladly accept Rump’s false-flagging in exchange for MJJ’s false-flagging.

    • lucybeckett35  On August 18, 2015 at 5:06 am

      I don’t think you get it at all! You think you do…you say you do…but then you immediately start telling them how they should have done it, or done it better. You are telling black folks, because you are white and therefore better than, that you should be the leader and they should follow you. Because you have ‘white privilege’ that’s just what comes naturally to you. Black folks are sick unto death of that attitude; stand aside and listen to what they are saying, okay? Once you understand about ‘white privilege’, everything will fall into place. I was where you are not very long ago. Forget about your concept of ‘rudeness.’ The blacks who sat down at a lunch counter were certainly disruptive!!

  • Kathleen and John  On August 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Excellent analysis – thanks!

    Sent from my iPad


  • cnminter  On August 17, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    I understand the rational. I think it works up to a point, but you can only ride the rage pony so far. Just ask the Malcom X, Black Panthers, the Weathermen. Also if you decide your cause is best served by throwing a tantrum protest, and sometimes IT IS the ONLY way to be heard. Don’t get your panties in a wad when other people point out the obvious. You’re being rude and obnoxious.

  • Marijane  On August 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Great post! It puts me in mind of this PZ Myers classic: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/04/21/we-aim-to-misbehave/

    • weeklysift  On September 8, 2015 at 6:55 am

      I had not thought of the parallel to the rudeness of the New Atheists.

  • blockmegatron  On August 17, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    A couple of years ago I read Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanhoff’s book, The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of the Nation. The book is very good and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

    But reading it made me realize that there exists a kind of arms race between protesters and the powers that be. We can say, Oh, why aren’t today’s protesters nice and polite like those well-groomed Civil Rights marchers, but that doesn’t take into account 1) the people of the 50’s and 60’s did not think they were nice and polite and 2) society has adapted so we don’t *have* to listen to that type of protest. So no we can have giant street marches that aren’t covered in the news or covered as if they are something other than *political* protest.

    In order to be heard at all, in order to be covered in the media and to have people talking about their issues, protesters have to find a new path that leads to their not being ignored. I would imagine that the BLM people think Bernie Sanders is a good bet because Bernie Sanders understands this.

    • weeklysift  On September 8, 2015 at 6:38 am

      This is a good point. If people want to ignore you, and you don’t let them ignore you, then almost by definition you’re being rude. So protest pretty much has to be rude.

  • mysanal  On August 25, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Reblogged this on Mysa.

  • MD  On December 30, 2015 at 9:13 am

    “I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.”

    “a resistance to attempts at pacification and, in some cases, even hitting. Physical control may be lost; the person may be unable to remain still; and even if the “goal” of the person is met, he or she may not be calmed, and may be expressive in a tirade: a protracted, angry, or violent speech”

    Which one is the definition, and which one is the quote?

  • Big Al  On February 26, 2016 at 8:59 am

    After reading this as a black man and a voter I believe that this hurts us more than helps..

    To me Bernie is clearly the closest candidate to help not only blacks but also other minorities…

    By hurting his campaign…it also hurts us..

    I propose this question…what man is perfect??

    If the answer is none….than we have to go with the one who will help us and not go against that person…

    I wish there were better candidates…but there are not…So with that being said…In my opinion this strategy was wrong….


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