I have a few thoughts I want to float on the recent #BLM activism that involved, as of this writing, two takeovers of public events. One takeover was at a Netroots Nation event that included Bernie Sanders, the other at a Sanders rally.
First, I think it has to be understood that disruptive actions like this need to be carried out, and carried out more. Unless you can somehow convince me that there is a way to deal with violence in and against the African American community, widespread incarceration, habitual attacks by police on African Americans (and some others), etc. without civil disobedience, I’m going to stick with that. A disruptive action here and there will not leave much of a mark. It will be forgotten about. Sustained and well done disruptive activism is called for in the current situation. If it is only addressed to Bernie Sanders, it will fail, and if it doesn’t sustain through the entire election season, it will fail, in my opinion.
(Having said that, at some point security changes will make stage rushes impossible, and after that, it will all be protesting outside events. That has to be evaluated for effectiveness and a good strategy that works will have to develop. A small protest at every event will probably get ignored. A planned huge protest that does not end up being huge will backfire. A good number of very large outside protest will probably be effective.)
I don’t think either of the events, as far as I can tell, were done as well as one might like. At Netroots Nation, the #BLM activists gained the floor, and seem to have done well making key points. But they didn’t seem to have an exit strategy. An exit strategy would have gained them even more points and avoided some of the irrelevant conversations. An act of disruptive activism is always going to produce whinging and complaining about the act, but it is also good to try to have as much of the ensuing conversation as possible be about the point of the activism itself. It should be all about black lives, mattering, not about the #BLM movement’s tactics.
In the case of the Sanders rally, it appears to me that mistakes were made by both parties. The Sanders people tried to say that the #BLM protesters could take the mic after Sanders spoke. They should have just handed the mic over. On the other hand, it was not clear that the #BLM activists were prepared, both rhetorically and technically, to actually take over the rally.
In this sense, disruption may be a little like “awareness raising.” If either of those on its own is your goal, you won’t win. Those are only parts of a larger strategy, and both can actually have negative effects including the development of an inured public. In the case of going after an election campaign, the larger scale strategy might be to make sure that the problems we are seeing now, including racially motivated violence, mass incarceration, and the unthinkably horrible acts of an emerging police state, become part of the conversation for every campaign. Ideally a good percentage of votes will be gained or lost depending on a candidate’s, or a party’s, position on these issues.
Some people are complaining about the specific reactions of Sanders. I want to add an element to the conversation that I’ve not seen discussed. Normally this would be the kind of thing I’d bring up at an organizing meeting because it is a nuanced issue that a lot of people probably won’t react well to. But it is part of the reality of disrupting campaign events. But first a critically important digression.
The number one cause of death for African American males aged 15–34 is murder. Gun related deaths in the US are higher than anywhere else (not counting war zones, I assume) but for African Americans it is twice as high as white americans. If you are black and in America, your chance of being killed by some violent cause is 12 times higher than if you are black and living in some other developed country. And so on.
How often to cops brutalize, including shooting, African Americans? We don’t know. There are a number of reasons this is hard to figure out, not the least of which being that the US government has reduced, rather than increased, the quality and quantity of data collection, mainly since the NRA does not want easy access to information about gun injuries and deaths. Also the rate may be going up so available numbers may not reflect the present, or important trends. We know that African Americans are significantly overrepresented in the frequency of police shootings. That could be attributed to something other than racist police brutality. Poor communities may have a disproportionate number of African Americans as well as more crime, yadda yadda yadda. The real question is how much targeting do police do of African Americans, and how much more likely are police to shoot an African American rather than a non-African American (or a minority vs. a white person)? The answer to that is that police clearly target blacks, and are more likely to kill black Americans. We just don’t know the numbers. Frankly, the numbers don’t matter to the issue of whether this is something that has to be addressed.
This is nothing new. I first got involved in this issue when I was a teenager, and Keith Balou, 17, was shot in the back and killed by a state trooper in New York. Keith was one of several African Americans killed over the previous couple of years, and that instigated the rise of an organization called “Fight Back.” We had a huge conference in Chicago at which people related their own local stories. Obviously anti-black violence had been going on for centuries, this was just the new version of it. By the way, that was also at the time of one of the early first steps at militarizing the police. There used to be rules about how big a gun cops could carry. Keith was one of the first people, maybe the first, to be killed by a trooper using a .357 magnum, only recently issued to that particular police department.
My point here is that black lives have always mattered, of course, and have always been at risk. I think it is fair to say that this risk level has gone up in our post 9/11 terrified society, with the rise of an increasingly militarized police state. Things are getting worse.
So that’s the background, and that is why the #BLM movement exists, and why it is important.
But there is one detail about disrupting political rallies that should be remembered. I’m not saying don’t do it, but this is a factor that should be taken into account.
Several years ago I saw Jesse Jackson give a talk in Milwaukee. He was running for president. The talk was at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee student union. There had been rumors that someone was going to try to kill Jackson, so the security was tight. When Jessie went to shake everyone’s hand at the edge of the stage, a secret service agent stood next to him with machine pistol, thinly disguised as a handbag, pointed at the crowd. He was prepared to kill anyone who pulled out a gun. No one did, by the way.
Running for president is a bit dangerous. Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, and George Wallace were shot while running for president. Franklin Roosevelt was attacked while president elect. Of the 44 individuals who have been president, four (nearly one in ten) have been killed, 16 have been seriously attacked, with, I think, ten attacked with guns or, in one case, a hand grenade. In other words, the chance of being attacked with a gun or explosive, credibly, with about a 50–50 mortality rate, if you are president, at least to one in four, depending on how you count each attack.
Over the last seven presidents, four or five, depending on how you count it, were credibly and dangerously attacked. Ford was shot at twice. Reagan was shot and seriously wounded. Clinton was fired upon in 1994, George W. Bush had a grenade tossed at him in Tblisi. There have been various attacks on Obama but I think that was mostly just people jumping over his fence.
What is the point of this? The point is NOT to say that we should feel sorry for presidential candidates, elected presidents, or ex presidents, at the expense of black lives mattering. This is where the nuance comes in. This is not zero-sum game. Too much ammunition for that to be the case. The point of saying all this is simple. If you are going to plan a disruption campaign against candidates, you have to assume that those you are going after will be freaked out. They were already freaked out. They’ve already had the conversation about whether or not to wear a bullet proof vest. They’ve already been held in the kitchen or some waiting room while tough looking scary people check to make sure their pistols are loaded and ready, their communications systems in place. If they were paying attention, they already know about the snipers positioned on nearby buildings, and they probably walked by the ambulance positioned near by to take them to the emergency room when the shot that changes their lives, or ends it, rings out.
As campaigns progress, Secret Service protection is eventually handed out, or increased. It may actually be impossible, as I mentioned above, to disrupt talks and rallies by going after the stage. Alternative strategies will have to be developed.
Meanwhile, be careful.