Black Lives Matter activists shut down Democratic Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s appearance at Westlake on Saturday. The national news jarred his campaign, though he quickly followed it up with two successful events—a private fundraiser for about 250 people at the Comet bar on Capitol Hill (Capitol Hill Seattle blog posted a YouTube video) and a jam-packed campaign rally at the UW where 15,000 supporters showed up.
Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination has been dogged by Black Lives Matter activists for weeks now as African Americans have challenged the lefty candidate to incorporate racial justice issues into his economic inequality platform; most notably Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted Sanders at the progressive Net Roots conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in July. In response to the disruption, Sanders, perhaps exacerbating or even highlighting the disconnect, has cited his civil rights record and role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
As the day began, the atmosphere at Westlake was festive. The progressive group Washington Community Action Network, which organized the Sanders rally, had tied the event to the 50th anniversary of Medicare and the 80th of Social Security—cherished liberal programs. The crowd, mostly older, mostly white, was amped to see the man of the hour, U.S. Senator Sanders, the left’s increasingly, not-entirely-far-fetched alternative to frontrunner Hillary Clinton. A slew of prominent local speakers—civil rights leader, state senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southeast Seattle), president of the King County NAACP Gerald Hankerson (he was sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt), socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, and U.S. congressman Adam Smith (D-WA, 9)—worked up the crowd with passionate speeches about the social safety net. Sanders was slated to speak last and the crowd’s excitement was palpable.
But just as he got the podium and thanked the crowd and Seattle for being one of the “most progressive cities in the USA,” two local Black Lives Matter activists, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, stormed the stage with raised fists and demanded an opportunity to speak, threatening to shut down the event. Sanders backed off while event emcee, local labor legend Robby Stern (now with the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action), argued briefly with the two women as they screamed at him. At first, he told them they could speak after Sanders’s speech, but then conceded the mic to Johnson to a chorus of boos and chants from the crowd of: “Bernie, Bernie.”
“Please let them speak,” Stern told the furious crowd (some crowd members were chanting, “Let them speak,” though.) “You’re never going to hear Bernie speak unless I get silence now,” Johnson said to a barrage of outcries from the audience as the media swarmed.
“We want our chance to welcome Bernie to Seattle,” Johnson said. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its [so-called] progressives, but you already did it for me. Thank you,” she said, referring to the booing crowd, "now that you've covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism."
Johnson proceeded to layout a list of grievances including disproportionate discipline rates between black and white students in Seattle Public Schools, gentrification in the Central District (Seattle’s historically black neighborhood), and the controversial new youth detention center at 12th and Alder juxtaposed against disparate incarceration rates of black youth.
“Bernie says that he is about the people and grassroots movements. But the biggest movement in this country right now is the Black Lives Matter movement,” Johnson said. With tears streaming down her face, she demanded a moment of silence to honor Michael Brown (Sunday was the one year anniversary of the day Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Brown) and other African Americans killed by police.
Eventually the crowd quieted down, but outbursts continued from attendees shouting, “All lives matter” and “Get off the stage!”
Following four and half minutes of silence, Johnson brought the spotlight back to Sanders’s confrontation with Black Lives Matter at Net Roots, questioning his response and demanding "accountability" (Sanders stepped in it with BLM in July by citing his civil rights record, later giving Vox the “class trumps race” answer). She also highlighted that Sanders had yet to release a criminal justice reform plan, unlike the third—but less well known—democratic presidential contender and former govenor of Maryland Martin O'Malley (he was also present at the Net Roots conference disruption). The crowd greeted the speechifying with roars of boos. In the background, the Selma soundtrack hit “Glory” by Common and John Legend played over the PA while Sanders attempted to get back to the microphone. Willaford blocked him.
Washington CAN organizer Xochitl Maykovich attempted to establish order, taking the mic and telling everyone to "take a deep breath" and then giving a spiel about the incarceration of black males in America. But any hope for dialogue was lost under a barrage of ugly outbursts like “Go ahead and tase em” and “You narcissistic bitches” from members of the crowd while Johnson and Willaford began arguing heatedly with Maykovich. Sanders eventually left the stage, making his way through the crowd as he shook hands before getting into a car and leaving a highly charged and emotional scene of arguments between Black Lives Matter protesters and dedicated Sanders fans.
“What I think is too bad is there wasn’t any opportunity for a reasonable dialogue. We would have been happy if we had been contacted. If these folks wanted to talk to Senator Sanders, we would have been happy to facilitate that,” Robby Stern told reporters following Sanders’s departure.
King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson said the crowd’s reaction only “proved these young ladies’ point,” regarding racism in lefty Seattle. “They were more worried about Bernie than the [BLM] message,” he said. “I obviously would like Bernie to be able to address racial inequality in the same way he addresses economic inequality. He seems to do pretty good at that, but when it comes to talking about race, he hasn't been able to answer some of the questions that people are asking. He is someone that is seeking the leadership of our country and if he can't answer that question about race, as this young lady said, the question is, why should I [black America] vote for you?”
“I think he's a hell of a candidate. I like his issues of economic inequality, income inequality, but I have yet to hear anything about race,” Hankerson added. “And if you [Bernie] don't do that, this [disruptions] is going to happen all around the country.”
“It felt like I was back in the Deep South,” event technician Bob Barnes later told PubliCola, referring to the crowd’s reaction to the protesters.
State senator Jayapal told PubliCola at Westlake that she was “heartbroken” by what had occurred. “I understand when people say these white liberal progressives just want to sound good, but they don’t even want to be inconvenienced for 15 minutes or 20 minutes.”
“I think Bernie needs to do it more [address racial justice],” Jayapal added. “I believe he’s in a incredible place to bring this issue up. He’s running for president of the united states. And for him to actually bring a deep and real analysis of racism, not just from an economic lens, it’s got to be from a race lens, and I think it’d be amazing [if he did that].” She said she isn’t ready to endorse Sanders yet primarily due to his lack of adequate focus on institutional racism. (The next day, Jayapal published a reflection on what occurred at Westlake in which she described the disruption as a symptom of the disease of “unacknowledged and un-acted upon racism.”)
Later that afternoon, Outside Agitators 206, a group of local Black Lives Matter activists that Johnson and Willaford are associated with, published a statement on the action signed by the two protesters. “Sanders will not continue to call himself a man of the people, while ignoring the plight of Black people. Presidential candidates will not win Black votes without putting out an explicit criminal justice reform package,” it read, echoing Johnson’s demand during the Westlake disruption.
Sanders’s campaign also released a statement after the protest, citing his commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. “I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare,” Sanders said.
The candidate spent the rest of the afternoon at a fundraiser at the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill—where there was some concern that BLM activists would show up (though they didn't)—before hitting the big rally at the University of Washington Alaska Airlines Arena where there was a whopping turnout and a deafening crowd. The Sanders campaign estimated a 12,000 capacity crowd with 3,000 more outside.
Right off the bat, it seemed like the Westlake protest had gotten the attention of the Sanders campaign. The speakers lined up to introduce the candidate addressed his commitment to racial justice alongside tackling economic inequality. “Senator Sanders knows, as do I, that black lives matter,” state representative Luis Moscoso (D-1) said from the podium. (Moscoso was the dogged and eventually successful sponsor of Washington state’s own DREAM Act legislation.)
Perhaps the most revealing moment was the unveiling of Bernie Sanders’s new national press secretary at last night’s rally: Symone Sanders, a young black woman and former chair of the DC based National Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Buzzfeed reports that Symone Sanders recently advised Sanders on the Black Lives Matter movement and was subsequently tapped to join the campaign. “A year ago tomorrow, young people in America were galvanized and determined that these killings had to end and stood up to explain enough is enough and black lives matter,” she told the exuberant crowd, referencing the start of the Ferguson protests last summer. “Economic inequality and racial inequality are parallel issues that must be addressed simultaneously.”
No one addressed the Westlake action specifically, including Sanders himself. Sanders slammed Citizens United, he called economic inequality the “great moral issue of our time,” he bashed privatized health care, the failed war on drugs, and corporate greed. He did add this: “No president will fight harder to end the stain of racism and fight harder to reform the criminal justice system. There is no excuse for the United States having more people in jail than any other country in the world. This is a failure of our criminal justice system, a failure of our educational system, and a failure of our economy.”
On Saturday night, the Sanders campaign published a new page under the “issues” section of its website entirely devoted to racial justice featuring an extensive list of reforms to combat institutional racism ranging from giving felons voting rights to demilitarizing police forces and federal investment in job programs for youth of color. That platform component wasn’t there days before.
“He [Sanders] has to learn to talk about racism in that way…to connect his ideas on education, economics, incarceration, and race,” Jayapal wrote in her piece.
Updated March 14, 2016. Corrects a caption that indicated all shouts from the crowd were boos; some attendees shouted support for Black Lives Matter activists. Updated August 13, 2015. Marissa Johnson's name was misspelled as Marrisa.