Monday, August 10, 2015

A Firsthand Report on #BlackLivesMatter and Bernie Sanders
By Susan DuFresne.

Originally posted on


I was there. I was there to hear Bernie speak at Westlake in Seattle yesterday.


To get it out in the open, I am a white ally and still learning, still reflecting, still processing what happened yesterday in Seattle, when Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors took over the stage at the Sanders event.blm0
I was close to the stage and watched it unfold. It would be unfair to say that all whites were booing. It would be unfair to say that the crowd that was there to hear Bernie are all white supremacists. It would be accurate to say we are all playing a part in a system of institutional racism and that for too long, we have let it slide. We haven’t done enough to end it.

 What happened was interesting in a crowd of mostly whites, many elderly, many Baby Boomers… Because the event was about social security. People of color seemed to be at least half of the speakers and musical parts of the program. I don’t know if BLM was invited in advance. Security was very light. Almost absent.

I have been to many protests there, even co-organized them and there has been more of a police presence at other events, yet THIS was a MUCH bigger crowd. In fact I didn’t see police there at Westlake yesterday until AFTER the BLM group disrupted Bernie’s speech. Even then, they stood back from the event on their bikes.

 When the BLM group began to disrupt it was interesting to observe the crowd. I was there with a group of teachers. We stood next to a group of nurses. Some in our group have participated in seeking cultural competency training from Denisha Jones and have participated as white allies in BLM events. I was wearing my arm band from a Black Students Lives Matter event as my hat band — which I got at a Feb. 6 protest in Seattle, where I, with other teachers, used civil disobedience to block rush hour traffic by laying in the crosswalk at Westlake for 4 1/2 minutes to signify the importance of the life and the death of Michael Brown.


The crowd’s response showed they had mixed feelings about the BLM disruption as an act of civil disobedience. Some had traveled far to hear Bernie speak. Some did boo. But many also chanted “Let HER speak! Let HER speak!” Many of us whites were telling the other whites who were booing or talking during the time BLM was trying to speak to be quiet and let her speak. Whites in the crowd were shushing other whites to give her time and respect. I was one of the whites doing this. I said to others close by to give her respect. I was embarrassed by those who were disrespectful. I was proud that most were respectful and I was appreciative that Bernie and the organizers were giving them time, space, and respect. Bernie worked the crowd using nonverbal language to demand respect for them on several occasions, calming the crowd. At other times I could see he was frustrated, but that came later…
Marissa (I believe that is her name) asked for 4 1/2 minutes to honor Michael Brown. The crowd was not perfect, but for the majority this crowd gave this request and Michael Brown that 4 1/2 minutes of respect. I don’t recall if Marissa said she would then yield the stage to Bernie as she was setting up the 4 1/2 minutes or if it was inferred by the crowd. Many in the crowd held their fists up in the air for Michael Brown, many bowed their heads, and the great majority was in fact silent.

 Still, some were rude and some of us continued to call those not being silent out on their rudeness.
Friends next to me joined in to tell others who were not quiet to “Check your white privilege.”

 Then, Marissa & BLM did not yield the stage to Bernie. People of color who were organizers of the event tried to reason with the BLM group. A group next to me began chanting “Shame! Shame!”

Again, I felt embarrassed being white. I felt shame. Many in the crowd at this point – and myself included chanted at this point – “Let Bernie speak!” I felt at that point it would have been powerful for the BLM group’s movement to return the stage to him, but even while joining this particular chant at this moment, I was asking myself if I could be wrong. As an organizer myself, I think in this crowd the BLM group may have built their movement by doing so. That said, I leave room for myself to be wrong as like I said, I am still processing and learning.

 I think some of us, including me at times forget: This isn’t about us white people. This movement is about #BlackLivesMatter. This group wasn’t asking for space. They were taking it. That made some of us feel uncomfortable because we were in a position of giving up some of that white privilege for 15 minutes and the white privilege of hearing a white politician speak… White allies, let’s remember to check our own white privilege.
All media attention centered now on Marissa & the BLM group. As you know they have made mainstream media over their actions of civil disobedience. What did this do? What did they gain or lose? What was their purpose? Who am I to judge I wondered?

 I realize no matter what, I am always looking through the filter of my white experiences. Yes, racism is institutionalized. It is a social structure built for maintaining power over a select group of fellow humans based on skin color and a sense of entitlement. The only tool I have is to look through a human lens, to emotion and tie what I am seeing to a personal experience.

 I grew up in an abusive household with parents who had alcoholism. They used their size and strength to take physical power over me. My father used this power to strip me of any sense of personal self or dignity. I was only allowed to have opinions that were in accord with his opinions. As a result, I didn’t have any power in my own home. I felt a sense of utter hopelessness for me and my siblings (I was the oldest and could not protect them from harm. I felt like a failure. I felt it was my responsibility.) Yet in all of that abuse, I still lived a life of white privilege. I drew on those experiences yesterday as I observed what was unfolding.

 What I drew upon to analyze the anger, the despair, and the outrage I witnessed and the personal pain shared by Marissa is from my own personal experience of times when I have felt so much anger, so much despair. I have been in a similar emotional space before. I have never, however lived an entire lifetime without my white privilege. But in this case, as a white ally, I also felt my own white privilege: I felt something I have as a white ally that Marissa and the Blacks in America might not have. I felt HOPE. And I realized HOPE is a privilege. What disrupting Bernie and the BLM movement may accomplish is HOPE. I may be wrong.

What happened next was Bernie came around and shook my hand, looking me in the eye, reading my hat “Black Students Lived Matter” and smiling amidst all that stress. His actions took some of the sting away for those who were angry at not being able to hear him speak. The crowd could have ignited. The organizers could have called in the police. The police could have forcibly removed the BLM group from the stage. In the 60’s I am ashamed to say, dogs and fire hoses would likely have been used, if not weapons. That didn’t happen yesterday in Seattle. Instead the stage was occupied and Bernie’s speech was disrupted. Was that enough to give the BLM a small shot of hope?
I went to Bernie’s 2nd speech. He front loaded by adding Symone Sanders, an eloquent Black activist and chairperson of the Youth Commission on Juvenile Justice and supporter of the BLM movement added to his campaign- and the person to introduce Bernie last night.

 She and Bernie both inspired the 12,000 mostly white allies to their feet in standing ovations FOR the Black Lives Matter movement. This was electrifying. I wish Marissa and her group were there to see it.
But again, Bernie told us to think BIG. That a president alone cannot make these sweeping changes. That institutional racism and economic inequality are parallel problems that need to both be addressed. Does that give those in the BLM movement hope?

 I realize a standing ovation isn’t enough. But inspiration from being in a crowd who take that first step gives this white ally hope. Now, how do we translate that hope into action and law? Into reality and a shattering of institutional racism? How do we make amends for the years of abuse through racism? How do we heal as a nation from a history of slavery when right wing and even Democratic neoliberal policies are recreating slavery? What actions are white allies willing to take to destroy the oligarchy and along with it, institutional racism? What white privileges are we willing to part with? What are you willing to do to give the BLM movement space and to really listen to their needs, wants, and hopes as fellow humans?

 While the initial response from Bernie Sanders to the disruption of his Seattle event was disappointing, today his web site published a much lengthier statement on racial justice (link here) that begins to acknowledge the depth of this issue. This statement speaks to the actions we must take as a nation. Much work remains to be done by the Sanders campaign, but it appears to have begun.


Susan Dufresne teaches kindergarten in the Seattle area.
Photographs are by the author, and used with permission.

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