Why Saturday's Bernie Sanders Rally Left Me Feeling Heartbroken
Many people have been e-mailing and asking me how I am thinking about what happened yesterday at the event on social security and medicare, when some protesters identifying as Black Lives Matter got up on stage to challenge Bernie Sanders on race and racism, and ended up shutting down the event so Bernie could not speak. I'm struggling but in the spirit of community, here's what comes to mind.
First, I want to give a huge shout out to the amazing leaders who worked for months and months to organize the event: Robby Stern and PSARA, Social Security Works Washington, Washington CAN, Burke Stansbury, and so many more. This was a huge event to put together, and their determination is what ultimately got Senator Bernie Sanders to Seattle in the first place. The rally was also packed—maybe around 5,000 people—and people stood in the hot sun for a couple of hours, engaging actively and cheering on the incredibly wide range of speakers the coalition had put together. I was proud to be the speaker just before Bernie was supposed to speak. Watching what unfolded made me heartbroken. I have so many somewhat jumbled thoughts—here are just a few.
1) This is one small result of centuries of racism. As a country, we still have not recognized or acknowledged what we have wrought and continue to inflict on black people. The bigger results are how black kids as young as two are being disciplined differently in their daycares and pre-k classes. That black people are routinely denied jobs that white people get with the same set of experiences and skills. That black people—women and men—continue to die at the hands of police, in domestic violence, on the streets. That black mothers must tell their children as young as seven or eight that they have to be careful about what pants or hoodies they wear or to not assert their rights if stopped. That this country supports an institutionalized form of racism called the criminal justice system that makes profit—hard, cold cash—on jailing black and brown people. I could go on and on. But the continued lack of calling out that indelible stain of racism everywhere we go, of refusing to see that racism exists and implicit bias exists in all of us, of refusing to give reparations for slavery, of refusing to have our version of a truth and reconciliation process—that is what pushes everything underneath and makes it seem like the fault is of black people not of the country, institutions, and people that wrought the violence. That is the anger and rage that we saw erupt yesterday on stage. But it's not the problem, it's a symptom of the disease of unacknowledged and un-acted upon racism.
2) When the disruption first happened, the crowd (mostly white) turned ugly. It's hard to say what is the chicken or the egg. Some of it may have stemmed from the protesters calling the whole crowd racist. Some of it was from annoyance at the disruption. Some was probably from deep disagreement about tactics in a movement to get attention to an issue. Some was from deep disappointment because people had stood in the hot sun for hours to hear Bernie. Whatever it was, the conversations that ensued—the name calling of white and black people against each other, including some people calling blacks who didn't agree with what was happening racist—were so painful. I was in the speakers tent and Pam Keeley alerted me to two young black girls (Gina Owens grandchildren) who were weeping, they were so scared, so I went over to comfort them. We stood with our arms around each other, and in some small way, that gave me the greatest sense of doing something tangible—to be with people I love, assuring them they would be safe, and that none of us would ever let harm come to them. After the protests, several people came up and wanted to talk. Many were furious—some white people said they no longer support BLM. Others said they do support it but this erodes their support. Some said outrageous things from anger. Others seemed befuddled. Some understood. People will have to work this out for themselves, but as we all do, I hope that we can open our hearts to all of the pain and suffering in the world and be as compassionate and kind as possible to each other so that we can also heal as we learn and listen.
3) I don't have any answer on what is "right." Bernie Sanders was a guest in our city—invited by a multiracial coalition to speak on some very important issues. Enormous amounts of work went into yesterday's event and it was so important to talk about preserving and expanding Social Security and Medicare. None of the papers today are covering those issues, because they were eclipsed by what happened. That's not necessarily "wrong"—it just is what it is. But here's what I would have loved to have happen: after the protesters were able to get the mic and say their piece and have the 4.5 minutes of silence for all the black people who have been killed, I would have loved for Bernie Sanders to take the mic and respond. And also to speak about Social Security and Medicare too. Here's what I would love even more: for the Sanders campaign and BLM nationally to sit down and talk about an agenda on racial justice that he can use his presidential platform to help move. Imagine rolling out that agenda and inviting black people to talk about it on stage with him. Now that excites me.
4) I had not yet endorsed Bernie Sanders (and still have not), although I was incredibly excited about his candidacy. One of the primary reasons is because I wanted to know more about his stands on race and racism. I asked the campaign for some time to discuss this with him, and he did very graciously make some time for me to have a short conversation with him. What I got from the conversation is that he knows he comes from a very white state and he's a 70+ year old white guy. He knows that running for President, he must now speak to voters who are very different from those in his state. He IS deeply committed to equality on all counts but his primary lens for all of his work—and a HUGELY necessary and not-often-enough-acknowledged lens—is economic. He is a truth-teller on economic issues in a way that no other candidate is. He gets the connection between large corporations, elections, and income inequality. He does understand the problems of the criminal justice system and I fully believe he will work to change that if elected. But the deeper comfort with talking about race and racism is harder. As Mayor of Burlington, early on, he endorsed Jesse Jackson for President and Jackson went on to win the state. He was active in the civil rights movement. But more than that, he is someone who has fought for so many of the threads that connect our movements. He has to learn to talk about racism in that way, to connect his ideas on education, economics, incarceration, and race. As I said when I had the honor of introducing him at his evening rally, he is in a unique position to do so. And we are in a unique moment where we crave that leadership in a presidential campaign.
I told him in my conversation with him that he needed to talk head on about institutional racism—he said he agreed and he would do it in the evening. And he did—to an enormous, cheering crowd of 15,000 people. That's a huge platform for our messages. There's more to do and learn for sure, but is any one of us perfect? The most we can ask for is for someone who listens and cares deeply, who is trustworthy, and who will do what he says. I know I learned a lot in my campaign and I will continue to grow from listening to people's voices. I believe Bernie Sanders is growing too—and I hope (and yes, believe) that we'll look back on this and see his emergence as a leader who brings our movements for economic, racial and social justice together in a powerful way.
5) Here's what I am trying to deeply think about: How do we call people in even as we call them out? As a brown woman, the only woman of color in the state senate, often the only person of color in many rooms, I am constantly thinking about this. To build a movement, we have to be smarter than those who are trying to divide us. We have to take our anger and rage and channel it into building, growing, loving, holding each other up. We need our outlets too, our places of safety where we can say what we think without worrying about how it's going to land, where we can call out even our white loved ones, friends, allies for what they are not doing. But in the end, if we want to win for ALL of us on racial, economic, and social justice issues, we need multiple sets of tactics, working together. Some are disruptive tactics. Some are loving tactics. Some are truth-telling tactics. Some can only be taken on by white people. Some can only be taken on by people of color. Sometimes we need someone from the other strand to step in and hold us up. Other times, we have to step out and hold them up. Each of us has a different role to play but we all have to hold the collective space for movement building together. That's what I hope we all keep in mind and work on together. It's the only way we move forward.
Pramila Jayapal is a state senator from Washington's 37th District.