Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"White Supremacist Liberal"

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about how I was done talking about race and made a vow to start listening instead. Little did I know that I would be put to the test so soon.

I was at a rally on Saturday to support and celebrate the success of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It was an afternoon of many speakers to be capped by some words from Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It was a feel good event, with speaker after speaker telling their stories about these most important parts of our nation's social safety net, but when it got time for Sanders to speak, a pair of young women, who said they represented the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Johnson, rushed the stage. They were allowed to take control of the microphone, and Sanders, along with the event organizers, more or less stepped back and let them have their say, part of which included calling the crowd "white supremacist liberals."

Many of my fellow rally-goers booed, some called for the women to be arrested. I was angry too, and disappointed. Not only had I come specifically to hear Sanders speak, but more to the point, it's upsetting to be called a white supremacist. I mean, I've participated in Black Lives Matter protests, I've written about it here on this blog, I've spoken about my outrage with friends and family, yet here I was being told that despite all of that, I was a white supremacist. And to top it off, I reminded myself as those around me became increasingly agitated, I had vowed to shut up and listen.

So that's what I tried to do. I heard some things I already knew about my city and a few other things that I'd never heard before. It was hard to tamp down my anger and even harder to stop myself from judging and analyzing what was going on. I heard very angry black women, yet through that anger I also heard the voices of intelligent, educated women. I thought they were stupid for undertaking this particular action at this particular time, targeting this particular politician. I kept my lips shut, but I heard my thoughts and emotions echoed by the white people who surrounded me:

"Oh, come on, this is a rally about Social Security."

"This is just hurting their cause."

"Don't they realize that Sanders is their best friend?"

The news reports have made it sound like the crowd was uniformly jeering the protesters, but that's simply untrue. Most of us were silent. Some were shushing the angry shouters. A group of young white people near me started chanting, "Black lives matter! Black lives matter!" And yes, some were quite livid and vocal about it. People bitched and moaned when the women said they would not let the event continue until we had honored a 4.5 minute silence in remembrance of Michael Brown, the unarmed victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri a year ago. I thought, "Fat chance of that happening," but amazingly, the crowd of around 2000, aside from a few, remained silent for the full time. That wasn't the end, however, and the event organizers finally decided to pull the plug on everyone, leaving Sanders to work the crowd for a few minutes, then we all went home.

I was tight lipped as I made my way through the crowd, as I shook Sanders' hand, and as I made my way back home. I had promised to listen when people of color talk about race. I had largely failed at that in the moment, but I tried really hard to "listen" upon reflection. Part of listening, I think, is to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, so I started with the question, "Am I a white supremacist liberal?" What did they mean by that? I didn't think I was a white supremacist liberal. I sure didn't want to be one. There was something I didn't understand.

I asked myself, "Why Sanders?" One of the answers is clearly that he makes himself more accessible than any other candidate. He will soon likely receive Secret Service protection and then it will become impossible for actions like this to take place, so I'm guessing that part of their motivation was to take advantage of this window of opportunity, which is smart. But why else? There is definitely something they want Sanders to understand (this is the second time he's been interrupted by BLM protesters), but it seemed pretty apparent that they also wanted to talk to us, his supporters.

I had trouble sleeping on Saturday night thinking about what those women were trying to tell me. I spent Sunday morning digging through all the BLM stuff I could. At least a few black commenters said that Sanders supporters were targeted, in part, because we are the most likely to actually listen, although based on the comments I found from those white supporters, most were judgmental and angry. Many were speculating that the women had to be some kind of plant, sent there by enemies of Sanders or the Democratic party or the Hillary Clinton campaign or even Sarah Palin (really).

Then I came across this expert from Martin Luther King's Letters from the Birmingham Jail:

First, 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.

Holy cow. I mean, isn't that exactly what I had done as those angry young women ranted at us? I had been that white moderate, and frankly, so had most of those in the Sanders crowd. Someone had sat at our lunch counter. Someone had refused to move to the back of the bus. Someone had used our water fountain.

On Sunday evening, I cycled up to Capital Hill where a Black Lives Matters march was scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of Michael Brown's death. I went specifically to listen. I was hoping that the women who had interrupted Sanders would be there. I was hoping I might even get to speak with them.

Sadly, neither woman was there, but we talked about them. Several people told me they didn't necessarily agree with everything they had said, but every person of color with whom I spoke said they supported the action, and specifically, that the women were justified. There has been much made in the media and elsewhere about the fact that Willaford and Johnson aren't "really" a part of BLM, but from everything I could gather from these local BLM activist, they are embraced by the movement and known by many of the people there on Sunday. There has been much made in the media and elsewhere about the fact that Willaford and Johnson's actions would hurt both BLM and Sanders, but over the weekend the Sanders campaign announced the hiring of a BLM activist as his national press secretary and released a racial justice platform, both signs that, in fact, these kinds of actions had helped make both the movement and Sanders' campaign stronger.

There were no official speakers before the Sunday evening BLM march, but rather a megaphone and an invitation for anyone to speak who had something to say. Speaker after speaker stood up, telling personal stories, each one sounding as angry as the women who had interrupted the Social Security event. One man pointed at a sign depicting the faces of black people who have been killed by American police and said, "The only difference between them and me is that I survived." I heard people saying that they were sick and tired of having to explain themselves, of having the justify their anger, of having to listen to their white allies explain how they are doing it wrong. And honestly, most of the crowd was white. One speaker even said, looking out over the 200 or so of us who had turned out, "It looks like a chocolate chip cookie without enough chocolate chips."

I'd not intended to actually march, but when we took to the streets, I followed along, echoing the words of our chant leaders. When we got to the Capital Hill Police Station, we blocked an intersection, circling it, leaving the center open. Cops in combat gear lined the sidewalks. One at a time, individuals came forward to offer their own testimony. Every one of them was angry. At one point a man brought his wife and two sons into the middle of the intersection. He spoke not of anger, but of fear; fear that his boys would be the victims. As he spoke, his wife cried, hugging her sons. Then, looking over the heads of the protesters, he spoke directly to the cops, "I see you laughing at me. You think I'm a joke, but let me tell you, I'll do anything to protect my family."

Every one of the speakers was angry. They tell us that anger is usually a secondary emotion, one that really stems from fear or sadness.

I've been listening. I've learned that I have been a "white moderate" for most of my life, more devoted to the false peace that comes from order rather than the real peace that comes through justice. I still don't think I'm a white supremacist, but I still might learn that I am. I sure hope not, but I do now understand why someone might say that to me. I cannot set the timetable for another man's freedom and it is not my place to judge his methods or his season. The two angry young women who prevented Bernie Sanders from speaking may or may not be "right," but they are justified, and I'm am grateful that they did what they did.

I'm not here to argue the rightness or wrongness of any of this, but rather to bear witness to the power of listening. If you are interested, here are three links that I found enlightening.

The Political Beliefs of the Protester Who Interrupted Bernie Sanders

Why Saturday's Bernie Sanders Rally Left Me Feeling Heartbroken

Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Racial Divide in Seattle

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Anonymous said...

Here is another good list of resources:

Anonymous said...

I'm bothered by your use of the word "angry" here but appreciate most everything else you have written. if they were white would you be describing them as angry? or perhaps passionate?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anon, I appreciate your point, but I've used the word angry deliberately because everyone I've spoken to, every article I've read, has used the word angry. "They are justified in their anger." Indeed, three different people told me specifically that it's the anger that white people don't seem to understand.

Laurie said...

In case you haven't seen this yet:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Re "angry" - in case anyone hasn't read this - one of my favorite pieces of all time on the topic - Audre Lorde's - “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” text available here -