Why Netroots Nation Was Exactly the Right Place for a #BlackLivesMatter Protest

(Photo: AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Black Lives Matter and Black Immigration Network activists shout down Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders during the presidential candidates' forum at Netroots Nation on Saturday, July 18.

When protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted the presidential candidates’ forum at an annual gathering of progressives from both grassroots movements and the professional left, a predictable response was heard from many white liberals and progressives: Why are you picking on us? We’re your allies!

If movement needed any more fuel, it was granted as much by the mysterious death, just days before, of Sandra Bland, which occurred while she was in custody of the sheriff of Waller County, Texas. Her arrest seems to have been prompted by her defiance of a state trooper’s order to put out her cigarette after he pulled her car over for Bland’s alleged failure to use her directional signal while changing lanes.

The trooper’s dash-cam video shows the officer pointing a Taser at her, promising to “light [Bland] up” if she didn’t obey his order to get out of the car after she refused to extinguish her smoke. After she emerges from the car and is handcuffed, she is made to move to a place (conveniently?) out of the camera’s view, and she is heard accusing the trooper of slamming her head to the ground.

It is noteworthy that Bland herself was an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, and that she challenged the police officer’s authority to tell her how to behave—a constitutionally protected right, by the way. Instead of writing Bland a ticket and sending her on her way, the cop arrested her under the charge of assaulting an officer, and tossed her in the slammer. Three days later, she was dead; authorities described her jailhouse death as a suicide.

The following weekend, Netroots Nation convened in Phoenix, bringing together the many strands of the progressive coalition under one roof, where the capstone event was a forum to which all the Democratic presidential candidates were invited. Hillary Clinton declined the invitation; but Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and two-term mayor of Baltimore, and Bernie Sanders, the sitting U.S. senator from Vermont, showed up to field questions from José Antonio Vargas, the gay journalist and immigrants-rights activist.

O’Malley was the first to stumble when protesters began shouting the slogans “Say her name!” and “Black lives matter!” Of course they do, O’Malley said. “White lives matter. All lives matter.” As Jamelle Bouie writes at Slate, this was perceived as protesters as dismissive—because it was. White people are not targeted by the state with anywhere near the same level of frequency as black people experience.

Just watch that dash-cam video again, and you’ll hear Bland say that she pulled over because the officer was tailing her, and she was thinking he wanted to pass her. She apparently neglected to put on her blinker when she did so, and that gave him the pretext on which to write her a ticket. In other words, she evidently committed the sin of driving while black. My understanding is that this is not unusual.

Add to that the fact that she wound up dead—did I mention that she wound up dead?—at a time when the frequent unjust killings of unarmed black people by police have been documented through a steady stream of harrowing smart-phone videos, and the protesters’ sense of urgency should be understandable. But it wasn’t to many, including the two presidential candidates.

Acquitting himself even worse than O’Malley—who at least stuck around to meet with reporters—was Sanders, who seemed to take the protest as a personal affront, seeing as he had been on the right side of that civil rights thing back in the day. His prescription for fixing the problem was no prescription at all: Make public colleges free for everybody. But Sandra Bland was a college graduate, and that did not stop a Texas state trooper from writing her a ticket on what appears to be a contrived reason, and then arresting her once she had insulted his authority and his manhood, even though her right to do both those things is supposed to be constitutionally protected.

Once Sanders left the stage, he canceled his meetings with reporters, apparently because he too felt his authority and manhood threatened by the protesters, who were mostly women.

Amid the fallout from Sanders’s tone-deaf responses, many in his cult-like and largely white following questioned the protesters’ motives and choice of venue for airing their grievances. Never mind that their man handled himself badly; it was all the protesters’ fault for being rude, for not appreciating Bernie’s correctness on every issue, for not thinking strategically. Others in the greater progressive and liberal communities complained of a self-destructive bent in the left wing, essentially imparting the message that if the black protesters would only behave, the white people who front the Democratic Party would take care of them.

All of these responses prove just why the Netroots presidential forum was exactly the right place for the women of Black Lives Matter to have staged their protest: A lot of white progressives just don’t get it. Sure, they’re against those killings of black people, and all. So shouldn’t that be enough?

Watch the dash-cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, and it becomes very clear why it’s not.

Until we all do get it, the kind systemic change needed to protect the rights and lives of black people is virtually impossible. Black people alone do not comprise a powerful enough chunk of the populace to make this a top issue for the general election; shaming candidates while they stump for primary votes is an effective way to push a solution to the targeting of African Americans by the state onto the agenda of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Radical action is rarely polite. Ask the activists who disrupted church services in order to be heard about the way in which AIDS was ravaging their communities. Ask anyone who has ever walked a picket line. Radical action is about demanding to be heard in the loudest possible way. By the time an issue has achieved the level of urgency to require radical action, courtesy has already proven to be ineffective.

Did I mention that she wound up dead?

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