Guest Opinion

Inconveniencing White Liberals

White people don't get to decide when race is on the table and when it's not.

By Tim Harris August 10, 2015

I was a bit of a Ping-Pong ball this morning assessing all the back-and-forth reactions to Saturday's #BlackLivesMatter protest. On the one hand, I was impressed, and even psyched, that a duo of young BLM activists shut down a rally of KUOW Seattle liberals out for Bernie Sanders. A riveting, important wake-up call. On the other hand, I was miffed about the tactical choice to dog Sanders (a progressive senator with a standout record on civil rights) for a transgression that essentially amounted to his perfectly legitimate POV of assessing things from a class perspective. WTF? Why not target conservatives who don't support policies that directly confront systemic racial inequities. Some wisdom from Real Change executive director Tim Harris, however, centered me. Harris posted a version of this essay on Facebook this morning and plans to hone it for his Real Change column this Wednesday. He graciously said I could publish his right on defense of the BLM activists here and now. —Josh Feit
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Let me tell you a story I heard at the Westlake Rally for Social Security last Saturday. A story about paper-thin commitment to the struggle, and politics as spectator sport.

It was still early in the afternoon. The rally had moved from opening music to speeches, and those promised to go on a while. We’d been there 20 minutes, and my daughters were getting restless.

“When is this going to be over,” one asked. “I’m bored,” said the other.  A rally to celebrate 80 years of Social Security is only so exciting to 12-year-olds. So far, the outing had fallen short of the “witnessing of history” I’d promised.

We were about to wander away for a bit when Steve Lansing appeared.

Steve is a “retired” labor organizer who always manages to be everywhere at once, so I wasn’t surprised to see him. He told me about a conversation he’d had a bit earlier with a man who had no patience.

He was helping at the stage when this guy walked up demanding to know when Bernie Sanders would speak. Steve explained that after the music, there was at least an hour of other speakers coming first.

“I came here to hear Bernie Sanders,” the guy harrumphed. “Not some saxophone!”

Steve read this as a parable for our times. If this reflects our movement’s commitment to justice, we’re screwed. I thought about that as the girls and I headed off for lunch.

When we came back and settled in, the crowd was bigger and more focused on the speakers. And then, the moment we were waiting for became something different.

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Senator Sanders, coming on more than an hour later than planned, got out his first sentence and was stopped by two women who took the stage in the name of #blacklivesmatter.

The next 16 minutes tell us more than anything the senator from Vermont could have said about the state of America.

The protesters weren’t polite. They called the audience “white supremacist liberals,” and said they were shutting the event down unless they heard some accountability. People got mad.

Sanders was fine. His campaign has been working to get ahead of charges of race blindness after the NetRoots conference incident a few weeks earlier. He gave a well-received speech on race in front of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the week before. 

The charges that the Sanders campaign was unresponsive to #blacklivesmatter, as an overflow crowd of 15,000 would hear from Sanders himself a few hours later, weren’t exactly true.

But that wasn’t really the point. The point is that black people are being shot, tased, targeted, profiled, and imprisoned, and they don’t get to decide when to pay attention.

The activists at Westlake were out to interrupt our sense that black lives can matter whenever we get around to it.

And some of us resent that. We think that things are supposed to happen in their time and place. We weren’t there for the black thing, and are upset about all the anger and rage and unreasonableness of it all.

Social movements are not comfortable things. They begin with letting ourselves feel grief for the way things are, and knocking down the defenses that keep us numb and inert. At some point, the grief turns to anger and resolve, and that’s when change starts to happen.

Our sense of the normal gets interrupted, and we confront what we’d rather not. Good things come of that.

We were leaving Westlake when we passed Seattle musician Jim Page. He’d performed at the rally, and if he was disappointed, it didn’t show. He was explaining to a couple of older white guys why #alllivesmatter misses the point.

This is how change happens. A realization and a conversation at a time.

The history my daughters and I witnessed was raw and real, and full of the pain and anger that comes of dreams deferred. We learned that we don’t get to decide when race is on the table and when it’s not. We were inconvenienced. And that was just fine.

Tim Harris is the longtime executive director of Real Change.

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