Making Sanders discuss racism

August 13, 2015

Joel Reinstein contributes to the discussion about a Seattle Black Lives Matter protest.

ON THE first anniversary of Michael Brown's murder by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, protests returned to the streets in Ferguson. Once again came familiar images of heavily armed police trampling on Black protesters' rights, with over 120 people arrested at various points, including prominent activists Johnetta Elzie, Deray Mckesson, Rev. Osagyefo Seku and Cornel West, as well as a 12-year-old girl.

The night before, 18-year-old Ferguson protester Tyrone Harris was shot and critically wounded by police, and a state of emergency was issued for St. Louis County. At the time of this writing, Harris is still alive.

One year after the Ferguson rebellion birthed the movement that would become Black Lives Matter, people across the country have proven that this is indeed "a movement, not a moment." While racism in mass incarceration, economic inequality, assaults on public education and police violence against Black people have continued apace, so has a level of Black resistance not seen in the United States for decades.

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But as the movement for Black lives passes its first anniversary, it must survive the political tide of the presidential election that threatens to drown U.S. social movements every four years. Democrats give the appearance of rising to meet movements, taking activists' time and energy for their campaigns, only to wash them out to sea as soon as the election's over.

It's in this context that two Black Lives Matter activists prevented a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Seattle, setting off a firestorm on the left and ensuring that there would be, in their words, "no business as usual while Black lives are lost."

The fighting that's followed has vindicated Arun Gupta's argument that Bernie's campaign is fracturing movements. With Bernie calling himself a "socialist" and many actual socialists supporting him, the debacle has been framed as a fight between Black Lives Matter and the left. Critics of the disruption have suggested that the activists aren't really part of Black Lives Matter, and are in some sense tied to Hillary Clinton's campaign. (There's no evidence of this.)

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle that disrupted Bernie Sanders' speech. Read the Views and articles related to this discussion.

Todd Chretien
We want to win the debate

Crystal Stella Becerril and Trish Kahle
Black Lives Matter and the strategy question

Joel Reinstein
Making Sanders discuss racism

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Winning talk isn't winning action editorial
Black Lives Matter and the 2016 election

Steve Leigh
Who will fight for Black lives?

Some supporters of Black Lives Matter have trashed these critics as "white liberals," "white progressives" or "white socialists" who reduce everything to class, with one widely shared article framing the disruption as "exposing the white supremacy of the American left." (Apparently Bruce Dixon, Doug Williams, Rania Khalek and Pramila Jayapal, who have all either criticized the disruptions or defended Bernie, are "white liberals.") Whether these terms are meant to be redundant isn't clear, but the notion that socialist politics are white and reductionist is a popular canard.

COUNTERPOSING BLACK liberation to the left obscures the fact that opposition to racism is at the core of what the left is about, just as racism and class cannot be separated. But this false separation directly reflects what, until very recently, was Sanders' dismal approach to racism.

The self-described socialist's response to questions from Wolf Blitzer about the Baltimore rebellion was to call it a "state and local issue" and to say that "being a cop is a very, very difficult job"--apologism consistent with his past support for the Burlington police union.

While generally avoiding the topic altogether, he's put forward economic reforms as the solution to racism, ignoring not only police violence, but the racist structures that have restricted Black access to economic reforms in the past. Only after disruptions by Black Lives Matter activists has Bernie begun to take racism seriously--in his platform. That's not any kind of "socialism" worth the name. It's the kind of dead-end economism sharply criticized by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in What Is to Be Done?:

Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage, not only in connection with the economic struggle, is not one whit less "widely applicable" as a means of "drawing in" the masses. The rural superintendents and the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the "common people" in the cities, the fight against the famine-stricken and the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of the religious sects, the humiliating treatment of soldiers and the barrack methods in the treatment of the students and liberal intellectuals--do all these and a thousand other similar manifestations of tyranny, though not directly connected with the "economic" struggle, represent, in general, less "widely applicable" means and occasions for political agitation and for drawing the masses into the political struggle? The very opposite is true.

DESTROYING OPPRESSION is at the core of what socialism is about, and we root this oppression in capitalism in order to understand it and effectively fight it.

Of course, millions of Americans aren't checking Bernie's platform against Lenin. He is effectively representing socialism and the left as being narrowly concerned with economics, and ignoring racism. And while his campaign has finally started addressing racism, his justifying Israel's ethnic cleansing in Palestine and his chauvinist position on immigration (open borders "would make everybody poorer"--a not altogether different sentiment from "they took our jobs") represent the same fundamental problem.

Far from advancing socialism in mainstream discourse, Bernie is advancing confusion, and feeding the false division between socialism and Black liberation that weakens both.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms and questions around the action disrupting Bernie. In as much as it targeted Seattle's "white progressives," the action reflected an insular and moralistic tendency on the broad left. While Sanders himself offers nothing of use to the movement, and many of his supporters responded to the disruption with racism and misogyny, others are people with mixed ideas who can and must be brought to unequivocally support Black Lives Matter.

Still others already do, and of course, some face it themselves. They must be met with engagement and criticism, not righteous denunciation, if there is to be a broad anti-racist movement capable of wielding political power. It's popular to say that anti-racists shouldn't have to educate people who aren't yet conscious, but then again, oppressed people shouldn't have to be fighting for their survival in the first place. Destroying racism will require strategy that goes beyond moralism.

Many have also gauged the success of the disruption in its pushing Bernie to talk about racism. This raises a question about strategy. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in a posting on social media:

What does it mean for either Sanders or Clinton to produce more campaign platforms concerning "racial justice" when they remain in a political party that is complicit and invested in the destruction of Black neighborhoods through the instruments of privatization?

The Democratic Party on a mayoral and local representation level has driven the process of mass school closures in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia. In Detroit, the Democratic Party leads the assault on Black people's access to water as a basic human right. The examples are endless and yet there is a great deal of focus being narrowed down to what the Democratic presidential candidates are putting in their platforms as the basis of ultimately endorsing or passively supporting them.

WHILE IT'S not clear that this is the focus of the movement as a whole, Black Lives Matter is politically disparate, leaving room for elements to be pulled towards presidential campaigns. A recent statement by the #BlackLivesMatter organization (not to be confused with the entire movement) clarifies that they don't endorse any candidate, and thus far no other movement leaders have either--but the statement notably begins with "at this time."

With all that said, there is a simple truth to the events in Seattle: A presidential candidate of the racist Democratic Party was disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists. Instead of the presidential campaign pushing the movement out of national discussion, the movement is fighting its way into the campaign's spotlight. A candidate who stands to sap movement energy and corral it into the Democratic Party was discredited by that movement, which remains an independent force from below led by the oppressed.

At a protest capping the recent Movement for Black Lives convergence in Cleveland, police attempted to arrest a 14-year-old protester. Activists surrounded the police vehicle in which he was held, successfully forcing his release. That is militant, grassroots power, in stark contrast to Bernie Sanders' Democratic primary campaign.

No movement is ever perfect, but legitimate questions about this one's direction shouldn't prevent the left from recognizing its enormous power and potential. Between Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders, there should be no question about which side we're on.

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