With the routine killing of unarmed African Americans by the police, the Black Lives Matter movement could not be more important an issue right now. It should be at the forefront of any serious Presidential candidate’s campaign, and anyone who does not address it appropriately should not be taken seriously. With the explosion of cell phone videos and police body cams, there is no hiding how bad the problem is, and there is no turning back.
When it comes to protesting effectively though, strategy must always take precedence over raw feeling. One easy way to become irrelevant in the social media age is to let the extremists become the face of your movement – or in the case of organizations like Code Pink and PETA, become the movement itself. Urgent political movements like Black Lives Matter are too important to be turned into hollow preening contests between perpetually outraged activists.
When members of a local Black Lives Matter chapter in Seattle stormed the stage at a Bernie Sanders event last Saturday, the movement was put in danger by activists who apparently believed publicly harassing a politician who literally spent his entire life fighting economic, racial and social inequality in America, was an effective way to put their agenda on the map. Marissa Janae Johnson, the apparent co-founder of the Seattle chapter and self described “Radical Christian Mullatanist” and “Full time agitator,” demanded the crowd hold Sanders accountable for not doing enough for their particular definition of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Get him in check or we’re shutting this event down right now,” Johnson told Sanders as one of his managers attempted to stop her from interrupting Sanders, who had literally just started speaking.
“If you do not listen to her, your event will be shut down right now,” chimed in Mara Jacqeline Willaford angrily, another cofounder of the Seattle chapter.
Amazingly, Sander’s campaign team relented and announced that they would allow them to speak after the Senator had finished his speech, his campaign handler telling them: “We are trying to be reasonable.” This resulted in Johnson and Willaford literally screaming at him “WE ARE REASONABLE!!” Sander’s campaign handler continued to tell them that they would be allowed to speak after Sanders, prompting Willaford to throw a mini temper tantrum, screaming “DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!”
After forcing Sanders to move away from the podium and getting her way, Johnson demanded the crowd become completely silent before telling them they were “white supremacists” and “racists,” lectured them on racial inequality in Seattle, and finally enforced a four and a half minute silence to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. Not content with their gifted time at an event they had not organized, the duo refused to get off the stage after the silence, demanding Sanders apologize to her and all black people for not doing enough for the movement. Johnson ended their little spectacle by shoving Sanders, a 73 year old man, as he tried to get the microphone back to speak. A saddened Sanders ended up leaving the stage without saying another word to the thousands of people who had turned up to hear him talk.
The unfathomable narcissism displayed by these two ‘agitators’ aside, the net result of disrupting the speech of the most viable progressive candidate in decades was precisely zero. Not only did Johnson and Willaford embarrass themselves, they put the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement in jeopardy by making it about them. In their respective 20 something years of wisdom, it apparently didn’t occurred to them that hijacking political events, throwing temper tantrums, and assaulting the elderly might not be the best thing to further a cause. It also didn’t occur to them that picking on Sanders, a Jew who lost half his family to the Holocaust, was arrested for protesting segregation in high schools during the civil rights era, and received a 97% rating by the NAACP for his record on civil rights, might be somewhat idiotic. It didn’t occur to Johnson and Willaford because they couldn’t be bothered to find out, and couldn’t be bothered to study the tactics of the people who fought and died for their rights.
Along with protest and activism, acts of civil disobedience are a vital strategy in bringing attention to civil rights issues. But acts of civil disobedience must be calculated carefully, particularly in the modern media age when events can be easily turned into fodder for gleeful conservatives looking to dismiss protest as self indulgent acts of anarchy. As Matt Taibbi once wrote:
The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.
The Black Lives Matter movement certainly is a matter of life and death, and ruining a Bernie Sanders political rally is about the least effective way of drawing positive attention to it. Hopefully, real activists in the movement will tell Johnson and Willaford to shut the fuck up, and if they really do care about the movement, learn from those who have actually sacrificed.
And that includes Bernie Sanders, a man who has arguably done more for economic, racial and social equality than any living politician in America, and certainly Johnson and Willaford who don’t appear to know the faintest thing about him.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.