Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left

Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford holds her fist overhead and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby as the two women take over the microphone at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford holds her fist overhead and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby as the two women take over the microphone at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

You know, I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. I appreciate that as a U.S. Senator, he has been willing to speak the truth about many important social issues, but he’s also a U.S. Senator, which means that he is only going to be as progressive as his electorate allows him to be.

That said, I’d generally been pretty disappointed with the lack of racial justice analysis in his economic inequality platform as a candidate for president. That is, until a few weeks ago when some phenomenal Black activists at the Netroots Nation Presidential Town Hall forced his hand.

For all of the “this is not the way” sentiment we’re hearing from White progressives, it was the interruption at Netroots (alongside other direct pressure) that led to Bernie’s explicit platform on racial justice.

Notably, Black Lives Matter activists haven’t been successful (though I am sure not for lack of trying) in interrupting Hillary Clinton in the same way (that secret service protection and massive campaign budget for private security sure is handy), but even she has had little choice but to pay attention to Black Lives Matter as a movement.

And there is a great deal of disagreement within Black communities (we as White folks would do well to remember that people and Black organizations aren’t monoliths) about whether the action was strategic and whether targeting Bernie was the right move. And that dialogue should continue to take place within Black liberation spaces, but White folks – that’s not our business.

Because here’s the thing – what’s powerful about these interruptions from Black women is less how it has changed the tone of the Democratic campaigns and more about what they have exposed in the White left.

I see these protests as less about the individual candidates themselves and more about how their White base refuses to center Black lives and Black issues. It’s notable that White Bernie supporters, who consider themselves the most progressive of us all, shouted down and booed Black women who dared to force Blackness into the center of White space.

Because let’s be honest, every Bernie rally is White space.

In watching the over-the-top angry response from White liberals about Bernie being interrupted in Seattle, I can’t help but think of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on White moderates:

Image of Dr. King pointing with quote: “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

What was true in King’s time is true in ours: the greatest stumbling block to racial justice is not the KKK; it’s well-meaning White people who would rather maintain injustice than risk the decentering of our Whiteness and White comfort.

And when I watch and hear the reaction of a mostly White Seattle crowd to a Black woman naming that the event is taking place in the context of Indigenous genocide, the new Jim Crow, and the everyday violence that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people face in Seattle, I’m ashamed.

Two Black women called for a moment of silence for Mike Brown a year after he was gunned down, left bleeding in the street for 4.5 hours, and White “progressives” shouted, booed, and chanted the name of a White man throughout that moment.

How much more committed to a “negative peace” can we get than literally shouting down the memory of a Black youth whose murder helped to spark this movement?

And how much more “devoted to ‘order'” can we be than to lecture Black people about what direct actions are and are not “hurting your cause”? (Notably, this language I’ve seen from countless White folks shows that we do not see the cause of racial justice as OUR cause – it’s that cause over there that we will tolerate so long as it doesn’t disrupt our Bernie rally.)

And how much more of a “stumbling block” can our self-proclaimed “allyship” be to racial justice when it’s so feeble as to proclaim, “I am a strong ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I’m not sure how to be an ally when they are this disrespectful to the only candidate that has actually done anything for minorities” (actual quote from one of the 15 or so social media threads I’m following as I write this article)?

Notably, it wasn’t two Black women who kept Bernie from speaking in Seattle. It was a White man, a Bernie supporter, who organized the event who shut it down, said the event was over, and informed the crowd that Sanders would not be speaking because he couldn’t agree with the “methods of direct action” of the Black women in front of him.

We are so resistant to the decentering of Whiteness and the centering of Blackness that we cut off our own nose to spite our face.

White solidarity toward racial justice must look like more than pointing to the fact that Bernie Sanders was a supporter of Civil Rights in the 60s. White solidarity toward racial justice must look like more than a Facebook share of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Coates). White solidarity toward racial justice must even look like more than showing up to the occasional rally that is organized and led by people of Color (though this is a good start – please show up).

White solidarity begins with our willingness to decenter ourselves and to divest from Whiteness, our privileges and power, and to support the centering of progressive leadership of Color.

White solidarity continues when we work with our own people to dismantle the deep-seated White supremacy that would cause us to boo during a moment of silence for a Black boy murdered by a White police officer.

***

Related and Highly Recommended

In Her Own Words: The Political Beliefs of the Protester Who Interrupted Bernie Sanders

A lot has been suggested (mostly be defensive White people) about Marissa Johnson’s beliefs and intentions (including that she’s a Sarah Palin plant – ha!). Just read from her own words.

Why Saturday’s Bernie Sanders Rally Left Me Feeling Heartbroken by WA state Senator Pramila Jayapal

#BlackLivesMatter embraces Seattle activists, deny they demanded an apology to Bernie Sanders

Marissa Janae Johnson Speaks: #BLM, Sanders & White Progressives™ | #TWIBnation

Black Lives Matter Protesters Are Not the Problem by Jamil Smith

Empathy Won’t Save Us in the Fight Against Oppression. Here’s Why. by Hari Ziyad

Huffpost Live Segment on Interrupting Bernie Sanders and the Response from White Progressives with guests Jamil Smith, Aleidra Allen, Ben Cohen, and myself

The “Appropriate Time” is Now: White Liberals and the Politics of Solidarity by David J. Leonard

One Year Later – Reflections on Privilege, Fragility, and White Solidarity by Elyse Gordon

37 thoughts on “Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left

  1. […] White liberals and the interruption of Bernie Sanders. (and, incidentally, Bernie’s new platform on racial […]

  2. […] makes you uncomfortable. A white Bernie Sanders supporter shut down the Seattle event because he couldn’t handle two Black female protestors engaging in direct action protest. Bernie Sanders may be getting better […]

  3. […] Jamie Utt writes about “Interrupting Bernie” and the tonedeafness and insensitivity of m… […]

  4. […] has borne witness to countless uprisings and interruptions. The white left is losing its mind over protestors who dare to disrupt white political saviors with the message that “black lives matter.” […]

  5. […] Within #BLM there are two sides to the argument. The first is made up of Marissa Johnson, Mara Jacqueline Willaford, the other activists who wrestled away Bernie’s mic last week, as well as the social media warriors who stand in solidarity with them. Their message is loud, clear, and pretty reasonable: the dominant political discourse in our country excludes black voices, and so black voices need to force their way into white discourse by whatever means necessary. You can find a good synopsis of this perspective here. […]

  6. […] It is also not your place to tell black people how to protest. A lot of us are tired of quietly asking for our rights to be respected whenever it’s convenient for you all to get around to it. As I’ve learned from my participation in animal rights activism, direct action is necessary for social change.  If you only support black people when we speak quietly and deferentially, you are no ally at all. You are merely a tool of white supremacy. […]

  7. […] and the Negro Problem (http://www.webdubois.org/dbSocialism&NProb.html), when reading a counter piece to all the support Bernie Sanders got after he was interrupted by #blacklivesmatter protesters. […]

  8. […] Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left by Jamie Utt […]

  9. […] as noted by writer Jamie Utt, another thing that BLM has strategically exposed by targeting Sanders, is that stupidity about […]

  10. […] white America, here is your answer. Middle America, well meaning white liberals, and progressives of all genders, […]

  11. […] curious, what does a win look like here for BLM? Is it to reveal that all white liberals are racists and that they are utterly alone in the struggle and thus have no chance of reaching their […]

  12. […] Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left […]

  13. […] shoulder to shoulder with are attacking. Jamie Utt outlined this, along with other crucial points, in this article earlier this […]

  14. […] wait for something to attack Bernie for? Sanders rallies are now “white space,” as the website changefromwithin.org […]

  15. […] and the BLM Movement (by extension and as a whole) received. White progressives who expressed their anti-Black, white savior strain of racism caused me particular […]

  16. […] thrilled that Charlotte’s elderly politician boyfriend looks to be on the outs with progressive voters, but mostly because you could not stand the way he alienated black voters who occasionally made it […]

  17. […] Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left. […]

  18. […] enraged, “How dare you call me a racist?!” The disruption in Seattle, more than anything else, disrupted the bubble of white comfort in which many among Sanders’ base have lived their whole lives, believing that as progressive, […]

  19. […] Right.” Here’s a bunch of stuff to read: The Stranger story, and blog, and Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left (about the crowd rather than Bernie), and Jacobin Magazine (more about Bernie). in general, if you […]

  20. […] one blog post about the incident entitled, “Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left,” writer Jamie Utt employs a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King to claim that the major barrier to […]

  21. […] If you support Black Lives Matter activists up until they do something you don’t agree with, then you were never really in solidarity. If you support the Black Lives Matter movement but have never done anything to challenge systems of privilege and power, then you aren’t actually an ally. You are part of the problem. […]

  22. […] Sanders’ event in Seattle by #BlackLivesMatter activists, Jamie Utt at Change From Within noted a similar disruption of Sanders and Martin O’Malley at last month’s Netroots Natio… led to O’Malley releasing a criminal justice platform and Sanders including some racial […]

  23. […] white America, here is your answer. Middle America, well meaning white liberals, and progressives of all genders, […]

  24. […] ‘Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremecy of the American Left,” Jamie Utt writes about the dynamics of whiteness: “Because here’s the thing – what’s […]

  25. […] to air their grievances. Many white Sanders supporters at the time were visibly upset and many more took to social media to parade their racism. But what really got my attention was Sanders’ willingness to engage the BLM movement and how he […]

  26. […] what import this dynamic might have on the progressive movement as a whole? Jamie Utt writes in ‘Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left” “It’s notable that White Bernie supporters, who consider themselves the most progressive of […]

  27. […] now there are those on the left who are complaining about those of us complaining. We’re being called racists because we think these protesters shouldn’t have done that. How […]

  28. […] anti-black crusades rallying behind the nation’s constabularies and All Lives Matter, the white liberal progressive narrative silencing the voices of people of color one blanket statement at a time. […]

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