Pardon the Interruption, Bernie: Why Black Lives Matter Is in Politics to Stay

The criticism aimed at Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford has ranged from the deeply piercing to the explicitly racist. But what they did was necessary, a welcome harbinger of more direct disruption.
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Photo by Shutterstock.

“America is a racist nation. Look at this country’s true history. Look at its foundations. It was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and the continued enslavement of black Americans.”

To all those who say they should have chosen another venue, I ask: What venue?

A Black Lives Matter protester laid it out bare, raw, and unapologetic to me and the hundreds of others who stood shoulder to shoulder on the grassy courtyard of Seattle Central Community College. It was the day after Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson engaged in a now-famous disruption at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle, where the democratic presidential candidate was scheduled to speak in front of a largely (and seemingly) progressive white audience.

The criticism aimed at the two’s actions has ranged from the deeply piercing, to the contextually vapid, to the explicitly racist. The two women have had their lives scrutinized, religion questioned, and progressive values challenged.

All because they would not allow a white man to speak.

Not just any white man, mind you, but a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, with tremendous access to media. Sanders, in fact, appears weekly on The Thom Hartmann Program, a progressive talk radio platform with a reach of 2.75 million viewers.

And while Willaford and Johnson effectively prohibited Sanders from speaking for what likely would have been 15 minutes of reheated political talking points, he had the opportunity to speak that same night in the same city to a crowd of over 12,000 people at the University of Washington.

This is an opportunity that would not have been afforded to Willaford and Johnson. To all those who say they should have waited or should have chosen another venue, I ask: What venue? What opportunity? When and where exactly was the Legitimate Gripes of Black People’s Rally to guarantee as much media attention, national consciousness, and spectacle as what the two did last Saturday?

The answer is simple: It would never have been carried out.

What Willaford and Johnson did was necessary, a welcome harbinger of more direct disruption and recalcitrance.

The death of black people by state-sanctioned police violence, the shootings of blacks in houses of worship, and the absurd wealth inequality of blacks—none are a recent phenomenon. They have persisted as long as the myth of the American Dream: All are free, all are equal, all are bestowed boundless opportunity. 

Neither right nor wrong is the correct classification for what Willaford and Johnson did.

A myth that Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, Yusef Hawkins, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Tanisha Anderson, and Natasha McKenna scream from beyond the grave is a lie.

The truth is that young black men are three times more likely to end up in jail than their white schoolmates. That black female unemployment is almost twice as much as white women.

How can people be convinced these aren't truths? How could there be a billow of black bodies in jail cells (1 in 15 African American males are incarcerated, compared to 1 in every 106 white males)? How could African American wealth be 15 times less than that of whites ?

Neither right nor wrong is the correct classification for what Willaford and Johnson did.

Necessary is.

For too long the plight of blacks in this country has been neglected or placed on the low levels of a progressive pecking order—to be gotten to once “the rising of the oceans have subsided,” as Obama said during his first campaign for president, and workers have been given a slight bump in a minimum wage that is still barely at subsistence level.

No more, that is what Willaford and Johnson and every disruption—and there will be more—are saying from here on out.

Saying, “We did as you asked. We knocked politely at the door, waiting for you to let us in, but we received no answer. So we knocked harder, to only have you wave and smile at us. Now, we’re kicking the door down. What else can you expect?”

America is a racist nation, the Black Lives Matter advocate stated that day before joining blacks and whites alike to march in downtown Seattle. This is nothing but obvious.

That fact is one we can no longer run from; Willaford, Johnson, and other protesters will make sure of that.

Thank you, Mara and Marissa, but you must not stop now. This nation finally hears us.