Race to the Bottom
The Black Lives Matters movement opened up an important but uncomfortable conversation about race and institutional racism when its activists recently derailed a speech to thousands in Seattle by Bernie Sanders, who I fervently hope will be our next president. As much as I appreciate radical politics, the disruption bothered me, viscerally and ideologically, and it’s been on my mind ever since.
Exposing and criticizing this country’s brutal, racist, classist police state has been a journalistic mission of mine for much of my 24-year newspaper career. I’ve written and edited countless stories on cops who kill and maim and the system that shields them from accountability. I’ve been sickened by the wave of summary executions of black men caught on video, but heartened to see them finally starting to wake up a somnambulistic mainstream populace. Yes, we must all recognize that black lives matter.
And still, I cringed when I watched the activists refuse to relinquish Bernie’s microphone and use it to chastise him and his supporters as “white racists,” demanding the insulted crowd observe a four-minute “moment of silence” to honor Michael Brown, who was slain by a Ferguson cop a year earlier.
I was uncomfortable that Black Lives Matter focused criticism on the one major presidential candidate who was a part of the Civil Rights Movement and who has made a central issue of attacking this country’s gross economic inequities, which hurt African-Americans and those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder the most. I was uncomfortable with a tactic that seemed to alienate and anger the thousands of would-be allies in the crowd, and I was uncomfortable with the members of that crowd who heckled the two young women who wouldn’t let Sanders speak. It’s just an uncomfortable scene to watch.
But that was the idea. It was supposed to make me and other well-meaning white progressives, from Bernie on down, uncomfortable. As many excellent commentators have said since then, if white people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable — if the imperative of ending racist police violence isn’t forced on us — then we’ll continue to pay it only lip service and nothing will change.
So maybe disrupting the political gathering of white progressives, who support Black Lives Matter in theory but not always in practice, is actually a brilliant political tactic -- precisely because it makes us uncomfortable enough to perhaps wrestle with our failure to act with the same sense of urgency that we apply to other issues.
Let’s face it: the world is pretty fucked up, particularly from a progressive perspective. Capitalism is shamelessly exploiting human and natural resources without showing any signs of slowing down, even though it’s cooking the planet and causing mass extinctions. Political and economic power are being consolidated and exercised in obscene ways, corrupting both major political parties, one to a cartoonish degree. And we’re living in an era of endless warfare and constant surveillance by government and corporations, both souped-up with the latest invasive technologies and virtually unlimited resources, all of it functioning in lockstep with enforcement agents from the Pentagon and NSA down to the beat cops in every police department in the country.
Sure, they’re beating poor black men with regularity and impunity, just like they always have and just like our popular culture regularly displays, to our perverse fascination but at great cost to our treasuries and souls. Yes, it’s on more vivid display than ever today as we YouTube the summary public executions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and on and on and on. And we’re disgusted, but it’ s always been that way and what can we really do about it, particularly with looming problems like global warming and the Koch Brothers and gun violence and on and on and on?
But Black Lives Matter is saying more than, “Black lives matter.” It’s saying that we need to listen to them and follow them and do the work that we’ve always known that we need to do before anything can change for any of us. On some level, we all know that we need to stop the brutality that is being done in our names on the streets of our neighborhoods.
“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “Between the World and Me,” the excellent new memoir written as a letter to his young black son, warning of the hazards that await him.
He writes of a country that is “lost in the Dream,” that candy-coated illusion that we live in a meritocracy where hard work and playing by the rules are the keys to a stable home and life — rather than living in a country built with slave labor, systemic violence, rewarded greed, and calculated lies.
Yes, this is uncomfortable stuff, and it may take a long, difficult period of truth and reconciliation to heal from these wounds and become the good people that we claim to be. But in embarking on that long journey, perhaps the best first step is to say, “black lives really do matter,” and to start the rebuilding process by reforming our police departments and ending their role in perpetuating state violence against people of color.
And if we succeed, maybe history will look back on that uncomfortable moment on the Seattle stage as an awkward turning point. After all, it succeeded in getting the Sanders campaign to address the issue more directly, a change that could force Hillary Clinton to do so as well and make it part of the Democratic Party presidential platform.
That wouldn’t solve the problem – it would only increase the importance of the kind of uncomfortable, confrontational, street-level activism that pushes the powerful to keep their promises – but might further break down the barrier between the political podium and the people, clearing the path toward our collective redemption.