Even though it now seems like a long time ago, I freely admit the Bernie blow-up at Netroots Nation has made me a little crazy. Today I finally watched a video of the entire episode and I have to say the media reports severely distorted what actually took place. The story was of some huge confrontation between Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists. Sanders was said to be tone deaf to the urgency of racist police misconduct.
In the video, there is some very limited disruption of Sanders’ speech near the beginning and scattered, intermittent yelling afterwards. Mostly he was able to talk over them and get his message out, and mostly they let him. He could have handled it better by being more forthcoming in responding to the protest, but he did respond. I doubt anything he could have said would have made them all stop. (Martin O’Malley got much of the worst of the protests and was at least as clumsy in responding as Sanders.)
There has been more vitriol in the aftermath than at the event itself between often white Bernie supporters and often black supporters of the #BLM movement. Criticism of the anti-Bernie initiative is in my experience falsely interpreted as attacks on the intelligence of everyone in the movement, if not all black people. (I say anti-Bernie initiative because there has been no parallel criticism of Hillary Clinton, much less any intervention at her campaign events.)
At my family dinner table, growing up, “You’re nuts” (usually from my father) was never fighting words, much less grounds for lasting animosity. It was a normal part of argument. To me, criticism does not imply any lack of intelligence or sophistication on the part of anyone I criticize. If I want to insult you, you will know it. Indeed, any intense political activity is likely to be rife with criticism, flying in every direction. Why should #BlackLivesMatter be any different? The alternative is a movement of zombies.
I’ve participated in disruptions of speakers in the (distant) past, and with less justification than #BLM. My issue here is practical, not moral. What is the political fall-out from dumping on Bernie?
The good fall-out is that he has revised his platform to explicitly grapple with issues pertaining specifically to racist police misconduct. This was overdue. From this standpoint, he deserved a bonking. At the same time, some of the ‘demands’ of some in #BLM are ambitious to the point of fantasy. (My basis for this is the remarks made by protesters during and after the speeches.) How exactly is a candidate supposed to explain in five minutes how he or she is going to “end structural racism”? Does anybody really want a dissertation on how to perfect all the laws barring discrimination in employment, housing, and the like? It’s the kind of question that is not designed to elicit an answer.
The bad fall-out is the false impression that Hillary Clinton has some advantage on these issues. This is complete hogwash. If you examine her statements, you will find the actual policies aimed at racist police misconduct to be very thin. Body- and dash-cameras. Or course, we are finding out about police atrocities precisely from these cameras.
Hillary is good at providing anti-racist mood music but abstains from endorsing much in the way of specific remedies. She has the best PR that money can buy, and she has a lot of money. Hillary’s record includes support for hubby’s boost to mass incarceration and malignant “welfare reform,” among other dubious achievements. Bernie’s record is uninterrupted support for African-American interests, for fifty years. To date, there has been no parallel #BlackLivesMatter intervention in a Hillary event. Why not? Shouldn’t there be?
Who were the #BLM activists at Netroots Nation? My Facebook friend Bruce Dixon, a Black Panther back in the day, rips them up and down, asserting attendees at this conference are only interested in getting jobs and grants from liberals and Democratic Party apparatchiks. I think this is a little strong. First of all, there is often no way to know who is on the make and who is sincere since none of us are mind-readers. Second, it’s no sin to hope to advance the cause by working for Democrats. It may be a debatable political premise, but that’s a different matter, not a question of bad faith.
The real story here is not what happened at the conference, but post-conference commentary that invents contradictions between Bernie’s social-democratic politics and African-American interests. Such concoctions are deeply antithetical to any prospects for relief from racist police abuse, much less the entire menu of progressive concerns. There is a case for preferring Hillary to Bernie, on the grounds that she seems to have a better chance of beating any Republican (or did, until recently). There is no case that she provides more support for #BLM concerns.
Currently the Democratic primary is between two people. There is no getting around that. You ding one, you help the other.