The Interrupters

By Waleed Shahid Aug 14, 2015

As you’ve surely heard—and debated—Black Lives Matter (BLM) members have been disrupting presidential campaign rallies lately. Last Saturday, two in Seattle took over the mic at a Social Security-centered event that Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) held. Five were barred on Monday from entering a New Hampshire substance abuse forum featuring former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). (She met with the group for 15 minutes afterwards.) Although former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush‘s campaign reportedly met with BLM representatives before his Las Vegas town hall on Wednesday, the Republican’s event still ended with chants of "Black lives matter." Also on Wednesday, Republicans Donald Trump and Ben Carson criticized the movement as "a disgrace" and causing “racial strife,” respectively.

BLM seems to have entered a new phase in its relatively young life: non-cooperation with the mainstream political parties. As an increasing number of BLM activists are successful in changing the media narrative surrounding the presidential elections, national leaders have had to formalize a set of principles about its refusal to endorse any party or candidate. 

Because the network is decentralized and expansive it has been difficult for some to understand BLM’s strategy, structure and vision. Some have asked questions like, "What are their demands?" "Are they making it up as they go along?" "Why are they going after Bernie Sanders?" 

I spoke with five leaders in the movement for black lives, some BLM members, some from other organizations who closely with BLM, to answer some of these questions, which are on the minds of millions, including some of the organizers themselves.

What’s your immediate reaction when a Black Lives Matter protester disrupts a presidential candidate such as Bernie Sanders?

Mara Willaford (co-founder, Black Lives Matter—Seattle who interrupted Sanders’ event): I feel pride and joy. I shut it down for my people, and I know they shut it down for me—as an act of radical love and self-love.

Akin Olla (field organizer, United States Student Association): To be honest, my initial reaction has been generally negative. There is something immediately unsettling about watching what looks like a conflict between two political bodies that I respect and see as part of the same larger movement to destabilize the monopoly of power and wealth of the white ruling class. It has taken a bit of reflection to truly appreciate these actions as a means of not only moving politics and discourse further to the left and toward black liberation [but as] a test of where the country and the left stand overall. They have shown that many young progressives are still hanging on to the old political system and the kind of politics that millennials often claim as broken.

Alicia Garza (co-founder, Black Lives Matter): I feel an incredible sense of admiration. It’s not easy to challenge power, as much as we talk about it. It’s also not easy to have to hold the nastiness that you get from people who weren’t brave enough to do what they did, even though it needed to be done. So I feel humbled, in awe of their courage and [committed to them].

Michael Mcdowell (organizer, Black Lives Matter—Minneapolis): None of these candidates are where they need to be to lead this country in the right direction. Bernie Sanders happens to be the one who is the most left and is the most moveable on racial justice and equity. My initial reaction was, “Right on. This is what we need to be doing.”

Dante Barry (executive director, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice): I think it’s great—we need more disruptions on all sides of the political spectrum. All candidates should have to work to earn the votes of black communities, especially Democrats. Candidates need to remember: Black women turn out more votes and that [it is] wise to center rhetoric and action toward appealing to black women. We need candidates to put forward transformative platforms that speak to black communities.

What’s your response to progressives who have criticized BLM for targeting Bernie Sanders, the candidate they claim is most sympathetic to your movement? 

BLM’s Garza: Black Lives Matter is doing what Democrats have been needing to do for a long time now—centering the experiences of black people so that we can all live a better life. There’s a certain level of irony in white "progressives" telling black people not to bite the hand that either feeds us now or may feed us later. See how that dog-whistle racism works? Because while people are busy talking about respectability and class consciousness, black people are dying at the hands of police and vigilantes every 28 hours, according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. [The disruption] made Sanders a better candidate than when he started.

U.S. Student Association’s Olla: Bernie is worth engaging because Bernie will actually listen. There is a lot of crossover between the BLM base and the Sanders base. Bernie will inevitably redefine what "progressive” means in the U.S., and these actions are a way for people that go unheard to contribute to that definition.

Million Hoodies’ Barry: I think the criticism we hear about targeting Bernie Sanders is a reflection of continued tension from the left to address anti-black racism.

BLM—Minnesota’s Mcdowell: Martin Luther King warned us about these very people. He spoke about the “white moderate” and how detrimental they can be to a social movement. We’re seeing a bunch of progressive folks saying, “We agree with Black Lives Matter, we just don’t agree with the way you’re going about it.” We’re really starting to see who the real allies are. During [the] Bernie Sanders interruption, the very people who we thought were allies were booing and saying, “How [could] you?” to the Seattle protesters on stage. The actions really expose the racism that goes on within white liberalism.

BLM—Seattle’s Willaford: I see no reason to engage with the Republican Party, which for the most part is explicitly anti-black. Targeting Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, hit a major nerve in this country. Bernie is considered more "progressive" in rhetoric and policy than Hillary Clinton. Why would Hillary feel the need to advocate a more "progressive" stance on race when Bernie, her most "radical" opponent was ignoring the black vote, being explicitly class-reductionist, and not releasing a public platform on racial justice? By agitating Bernie you’re shifting the entire Democratic Party left. Additionally, the progressive and liberal community itself needed to be agitated and called out. Lines in the sand are being drawn right now and people are having to pick sides.

What is your strategic vision for engaging with candidates and the American public over the next year? What message do you want to send both major parties?  

BLM’s Garza: It’s important to us that we make every candidate that wants our vote actually work for it. Right now, the candidate that can raise the most money from corporations that cause misery in our communities wins. They package a list of reforms they promise to push for if elected, but they largely feel accountable to the donors that fund their campaigns. So our vision is that the we just don’t go for the okey-doke. Our communities are in crisis, and we deserve better. We plan to set the terms of the debate. Democrats should get ready for that. And our message for Republicans? "Hell no. Not on our watch."

BLM—Minnesota’s Mcdowell: We’re trying to figure out how to target these candidates in a way that uplifts the work that is being done locally. Things are going to look different whether we are in Seattle, Dallas or Minneapolis. The solutions and demands are being molded by each local, autonomous group, but we’re [also] talking about how to build regionally together. Minneapolis is talking to Chicago and Madison, for example. We want to come to the candidates with actual solutions, to be able to say, “This is what we need.”

Million Hoodies’ Barry: I would love to see polarization. This election is super critical for racial justice and addressing anti-black racism and violence. We have candidates like Jeb Bush declaring that he’s Latino while the country prepares for a huge racial demographic shift and a visible rebirth of white supremacists. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

BLM—Seattle’s Willaford: The BLM network is currently developing our strategy which will involve advocating certain public policies as well as agitation work through direct action.

U.S. Student Association’s Olla: We must smash the shackles that hold black folks hostage to the Democratic party. In the same way the Sanders’ base has been polarized, the Democratic base in general must be. And any rift that is caused will not easily be fixed. The Democratic Party is not progressive nor is it pro-black. It is a leech that perpetually drains the actual left of resources, activists and rhetoric. I don’t care about the Republicans; the white working class has to break away from them, but I know any action on the part of black activists will only drive them further into the arms of the party.

Do you ever envision a day where BLM leaders are actually running for office? What would it take to get there?

BLM’s Garza: I envision a day where we have more choices. We’d love it if movement leaders would actually run for office! But what does that look like within the current electoral system? Not pretty. So, we need to get to work building the democracy that we want to see. As we do that, we need to keep holding these political parties and the politicians they support accountable to real people who don’t fly around on private jets.

BLM—Minnesota’s Mcdowell: If we’re going to get policies and laws that are set by and for the community, we’re going to need some of our folks in office advocating for us. It’s a huge piece. …I know it’s the most hated position in the world right now, but one of the things that could [also] be a big change is to have community leaders actually be police officers and set the law enforcement policies—if we’re going to have police, that is. We already have community leaders that can de-escalate conflicts in the neighborhood, but what if that was supported by a policy agenda?

Million Hoodies’ Barry: I envision movement leaders becoming more strategic and coordinated. If running for office is strategic for the movement, then I support it.

BLM—Seattle’s Willaford: I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. The system was not built for us: it was built on the enslavement and genocide of our black and Native ancestors. Shuffling movement leaders into government positions, academia and the non-profit industrial complex is one of the major ways that the state will try to repress and kill this movement. With all the black femme power of this movement we have the potential to bring about real revolution – we need to keep it pushing and take it there.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought discussions of racism and police violence into classrooms, bars, and living rooms all across this country. What are the big internal questions that leaders are asking themselves about how to sustain and grow this thing?

BLM’s Garza: We are still very much learning and growing. We are learning how to articulate our vision for the new world that we must bring forward if we have any chance of survival. A big question that we’re thinking a lot about how to grow this network alongside the growing movement for black lives that encompasses more people than our network does. Investing in movement infrastructure still matters—but how do we do that outside of the 501c3 context?

Million Hoodies’ Barry: We need to start looking at private interests and corporations that are invested in mass criminalization. We also need to start looking into the influence of police unions across the country. I also think that we need to see more of alternatives to criminalization— Black people don’t just want to survive, but we want to thrive in this world too.

BLM—Minnesota’s Mcdowell: The biggest question I have is, "How do we absorb all this momentum right now?" There’s so many people who want to get involved. How do we set up a culture and a solidified structure to plug people into? We don’t have that right now. And then how can we make this a movement where everyone is feeling like they’re heard and welcome?

[Another] huge internal question is, "How can we make sure that people show up on the streets for black cis and trans women who are killed by cops, not just black men?" There’s also the big question around the role of white allies, especially here in Minnesota. There’s a lot of white people and non-black people who are down, but how do we have structures for them to be involved without giving up black leadership?

U.S. Student Association’s Olla: The movement needs to start building its own institutions and taking over already existent ones. From freedom schools for kids and adults to taking over campus student governments. Each large action must be utilized to recruit new members who can help build infrastructure of a new society that can provide for black people and the movement at large, thus increasing our capacity and our ability to act.

During the famous lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s, a large percentage of the American public agreed that segregation was intolerable but disagreed with the tactics of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Do you see a similarity today?

BLM—Minnesota’s Mcdowell: It’s extremely similar. …It brings me back to the white moderate: They agree with our issues but not the tactics. It’s dangerous because these folks always try to change the tactics. We need to keep our eyes open. I’m realizing that a lot of my white progressive friends aren’t really on the same page as me.

Million Hoodies’ Barry: There are similarities. …However I think there’s a move towards rejecting respectability politics and a realization that we need to employ and support a multitude of tactics in order to get free.

U.S. Student Association’s Olla: Many people are on the wrong side of history, as they were then. A lot of people like to play armchair strategist, and it is easier to complain about the means in which others are fighting than it is to fight yourself.

BLM’s Garza: What’s true about this moment is that it’s not about the tactics. If you’re caught up in tactics you’re missing the point. We are being killed every 28 hours by police and vigilantes. There are 1 million of us in jails and prisons, and 9 million of us under state supervision. Our children are not allowed to grow up to be adults. If you don’t support the movement because you don’t agree with a tactic, I question how deep your support really was in the first place. What’s more uncomfortable: shouting, stopping freeways and interrupting speeches—or being murdered by police and having your body left in the street for more than four hours, or turning up dead in a jail cell after a traffic stop?


Waleed Shahid is an organizer, writer and trainer with Movement Mastery, currently based in Philadelphia. He tweets at @waleed2go.