When Black Lives Matter protesters engaged in direct action in Seattle recently, they succeeded in doing at least one thing: keeping race, and racially based injustice, on people’s minds and lips. The incident reminded me of my undergrad days at Oberlin College, where protesters once tried to drown out a speech by former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers. However, in this case, the win for the protesters was that headlines drew attention to the urgency of their cause. Following the kerfuffle, the campaign of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders swiftly hired a young black woman as its press secretary and added racial justice to its platform.
Like Sanders, I am white, Jewish, liberal and socioeconomically privileged. From my limited perspective, white supremacy and police brutality appear so endemic and insidious today that the BLM protesters felt unable to adhere to social protocol. These aren’t just problems, they seemed to be saying — they’re full-blown crises. Back in Oberlin, people said to the disruptive protesters: Why not just wait in line to ask Summers a question? But that suggestion missed the protest’s larger point. Students were protesting the very setup of the event: the undemocratic, silencing aspects of how it was constructed.
A radically angry and disenfranchised voice probably won’t be lifted up by even a very progressive politician. That voice must shout to be heard. So, in Seattle, for better or worse, the BLM protesters shouted. For them, the important thing may have been to communicate their anger and sadness, which burst the seams of “polite discourse.” Of course, the concept of polite discourse isn’t neutral — it’s culturally determined and socially constructed, and sometimes it constricts authentic, vital forms of expression.
The owning class doesn’t have to engage in polite discourse — it can buy its way to what it wants. Middle-class people, for their part, may dismiss the ideas of working-class people because the latter use words that feel too blunt or seem “unsophisticated.” Furthermore, the Seattle protest may have been about the limited avenues of dialogue provided by established systems, like the notoriously money-soaked presidential campaign process.
A strange current in the public discussion of this incident concerns the apparent faith of one of the BLM protesters. On Aug. 9, a Patheos writer identified Marissa Johnson, one of the duo who took the mic from Sen. Sanders, as “a self-identified ‘radical Christian’ and former Sarah Palin supporter.” First of all, note the word “former.” I know some former George W. Bush supporters who are now tremendously passionate liberals. I can imagine how, seven years ago, a young, impressionable evangelical could get caught up in Palin fever — only to realize later that Palin’s evangelicalism alone didn’t qualify her for the vice presidency.
The Patheos post and the comments of numerous liberals on Facebook also represent a mini-campaign to smear Johnson based on her Christianity. This strikes me as odd. One commenter, in Johnson’s defense, observed that Martin Luther King, Jr., could be considered a “radical Christian” as well. A few Jewish people I know have wondered in writing whether Sanders’ Jewishness had something to do with a “radical Christian” getting between him and the microphone. Call me naive, but I think Sanders’ Judaism was coincidental. The protesters likely chose Sanders because, unlike Hillary Clinton, he isn’t guarded by the Secret Service, and because they thought he would be more likely to hear and respond to their statement.
Yes, a post on Johnson’s Facebook page describes her Christian faith as a major driver of her activism. That post includes the following: “I am only as respectable as the cross. I am only as apologetic as the cross. I am only as concerned with worldy [sic] powers as the cross. I am only as concerned about upward mobility as the cross. I am only as neutral, as polite, and as comforting as the cross. I am only as rational as the cross.” Passionate, to be sure, but certainly not more “radical” than other progressive Christians’ activist philosophies. Conspiracy theories and expressions of shock at Johnson’s faith, which some liberals are treating like a secret allegiance with Lord Voldemort, seem misguided at best and bigoted at worst.
I do find Charles Mudede’s piece on the rally and protest compelling. In it, he wrote: “True, some of the people who booed Johnson and Willaford were likely racist, but many were simply upset by what they perceived, with good reason, as arrogant behavior. The event had been happening for hours, and it had taken months to organize and promote. … Rudely jumping the line rarely excites cheers and applause in any of the colors of our kind.”
No argument there. Still, regardless of whether one finds the activists’ behavior “rude,” Black Lives Matter surged to the top of the headlines as a result of it. As a still-developing movement, much as Occupy was for a long while, BLM will recover. As feminist blogger Jamie Utt notes “…there is a great deal of disagreement within Black communities… about whether the action was strategic and whether targeting Bernie was the right move. And that dialogue should continue to take place within Black liberation spaces, but white folks – that’s not our business.”
It’s not that whites don’t have a right to express their viewpoints. The First Amendment guarantees all Americans that right, and white privilege tends to keep white people safe when they do express themselves. It’s more about whether white people’s lives are on the line every day due to systemic racism. Since the answer is no, maybe whites can be better allies by eschewing the Miss Manners act and instead paying close attention to black people’s thoughts and feelings about police brutality, white supremacy, and institutionalized racism.
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