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Black Lives Matter Protesters Are Not the Problem

One year after Michael Brown's death, both liberals and conservatives are still getting it wrong

Elaine Thompson/AP

The activist group Black Lives Matter emerged out of the rage and mourning that accompanied George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin more than three years ago. However, the first time that the hashtag—and its accompanying message—entered the American lexicon to stay was one year ago this past Sunday, when Michael Brown, another unarmed black teenager, was gunned down by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, less than one month after an NYPD chokehold took Eric Garner’s life. On Sunday night, Ferguson reverted to its younger, violent self again, complete with a commemorative protest on West Florissant Avenue being met with police and things turning tragically violent in short order. And two days before the anniversary of Brown’s death, Christian Taylor became the 24th unarmed black man killed by police in 2015. 

We might not have heard about Taylor in previous years because attention on black men, women, and children suffering violence and death at the hands of police, in particular, is now at a level unseen perhaps since the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo. That’s backed up by a new Gallup poll indicating that Americans describing themselves as “satisfied with the way blacks are treated in U.S. society” is lower than it’s been since before the turn of the millennium. Ever since Ferguson, it’s evident that Black Lives Matter, in many respects, has worked.

In the last year, Black Lives Matter has—much like Occupy years beforehand—fundamentally changed the national conversation about a major societal ill. The movement has made millions of people aware of the white supremacy they either perpetuate themselves or support with their silence. With the emergence of the 2016 presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter’s demands have become more acutely focused on the candidates, pushing for policy platforms that address structural racism. Yet, as we mark one year since Brown’s death, we’ve seen both liberals and conservatives—from Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters to Dr. Ben Carson's—painting Black Lives Matter as a divisive force in U.S. racial relations. That someone might consider those fighting racism to be more divisive than racist people or structures would be laughable if unarmed black men in America weren't seven times more likely to die by cop than white men.

Ever since their disruptive July protest at Netroots Nation, the progressive activist and media conference, it has been apparent that Black Lives Matter and those which partner with it are not simply looking for words from candidates reassuring brutalized communities of color. They sought detailed proposals from the two Democratic hopefuls on stage, Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, whose awful criminal justice record during his Baltimore mayoralty has ruined his reputation with many black voters, responded more than one week ago with a comprehensive, if perhaps unrealistic, set of reform proposals and a call for a constitutional amendment to formally grant (and thereby protect) the right to vote.

Sanders, given to touting his record of working for civil rights and uttering names like Sandra Bland since the Netroots incident, experienced a second interruption during a planned event in Seattle on Saturday. Two women and one man claiming affiliation with Black Lives Matter disrupted the event before the Vermont senator could speak. Some Sanders backers in the crowd booed when they were told that one of the women, Marissa Johnson, would get her say before the candidate. “Bernie, you were confronted at Netroots at by black women," Johnson said before adding, "you have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like O’Malley did."

Having already responded to the crowd’s boos by telling them that they proved how “racist” the reputably liberal Seattle is, Johnson also called for a four-and-one-half minute-long moment of silence for Brown. Instead, more shouting from the crowd followed, including, per reports, shouts of “arrest her.” Sanders, rather than letting the protesters have their say and responding, left the stage. The event concluded without him speaking. A chorus of his supporters took to social media to question Johnson’s tactics—as if that’s what mattered most—and to tell anyone who dared question why Sanders didn’t have a set of racial-justice proposals that they somehow already existed. They were wrong.

A page entitled “Racial Justice” only appeared on his site early Sunday morning, containing a long list of proposals. A campaign representative reached out to me to say that those proposals, in the works for the three weeks since Netroots, were derived from a speech that’s been on the site since July 25. Given the pressure being put on them and the urgency they showed in creating the platform, it’s odd that the campaign put it online, essentially, under the cover of darkness.

The policies on Sanders’s racial justice page, while surely more welcome than none at all, are undeniably blurrier than those O’Malley put forth, and need considerably more specificity and clarity. There’s a lot of the typically forcefully liberal language Sanders likes to employ in order to inspire, but it seems even more fanciful than the O’Malley plan. But those ideas are certainly signs that he is hearing Black Lives Matter’s message. The problem isn’t so much him as it is his supporters, cursing protesters and later, on social media, touting their guy’s record whenever they are challenged on his (heretofore) lack of a platform regarding structural racism. They continue to misunderstand the primary goals of the Black Lives Matter protest actions, as have been clearly stated: Firm policy proposals, not rhetoric. Black voters have moved past "hope and change.” And hiring Symone Sanders, a black woman, as his press secretary—as the Sanders campaign announced hours after the protest—can't be expected to mollify the movement. Black Lives Matter wants policies for black people, not black people for his policies.

Futile as it may seem, Republicans in the presidential race also need to be pushed to provide platform strategies to tackle racial inequality and violence. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t bothered to put forth their plans to combat structural racism, and Thursday night’s Republican debate in Cleveland was no different. Race barely came up. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked about Black Lives Matter, but his answer was a big nothingburger. Having “touched on it earlier,” Fox News host Megyn Kelly later revisited racial fissures in the United States in her final question to Carson, the famed neurosurgeon and the only black candidate of the 10 in that evening’s varsity event. She asked him what, if anything, he could do “as the next president to help heal that divide.” Carson began his reply by lamenting the dividers.

“Well, I think the bully pulpit is a wonderful place to start healing that divide,” he said. “You know, we have the purveyors of hatred who take every single incident between people of two races and try to make a race war out of it, and drive wedges into people. And this does not need to be done.”

Carson offered up his familiar logic for how he sees color—or, more accurately, doesn’t see it. He cited his experience in the operating room as the reason he typically steers clear of racial issues. “The skin doesn’t make them who they are.  The hair doesn’t make them who they are,” Carson said. “And it’s time for us to move beyond that.” He was interrupted by loud applause by the debate crowd. “Because our strength as a nation comes in our unity,” he continued. “We are the United States of America, not the divided states. And those who want to divide us are trying to divide us, and we shouldn’t let them do it.”

I could make a guess about to whom Carson was referring, but it’s worth asking anyway. Were those dividers Black Lives Matter and other people protesting for black liberation and for the freedom not to be abused and killed by police—or folks like Dylann Roof, the terrorist who killed nine people in a Charleston church? After that shooting, Carson wrote in an op-ed, “Not everything is about race in this country. But when it is about race, then it just is.” Perhaps Roof is who he was talking about with that “race war” business. But those who think like that murderer are not moving past race any time soon. It isn’t unreasonable to judge that, given black conservatives’ propensity for mischaracterizing American racism, he was telling black people to get over it, because unity.

The common mistake made by both Carson and certain Sanders supporters is that in the midst of people dying at the hands of police and a still-largely racist justice system, their reaction is to blame the victim. Carson implies that the real problem lies with the people complaining about being killed and abused and denied opportunities, not the white supremacy that tilts the game against them on a daily, nay, hourly basis. Forget the White House for a moment; Sanders acolytes insist upon nominating their candidate first as an ally for black people. They act insulted that they are not trusted to recommend their candidate as the top advocate for black liberation in the presidential race. Yet, they and the campaign spend time devising tone-deaf chants ("We Stand Together") to drown out any future protesters, as Ms. Sanders announced during a Sunday night event in Portland. I'm not against criticizing activist tactics, but the idea that Black Lives Matter protesters are hurting their cause by challenging candidates, even those considered allies, is based in the notion that the burden of making change is on them. It isn't. Too many Sanders supporters appear to be caught up in their feelings when a protester rubs them the wrong way. They ask, why are the protesters so rude, or annoying, or targeting the “wrong guy”?

In response, I ask simply: Since when are protest tactics designed to make the people whom they are targeting feel more comfortable and less annoyed? And since when is Sanders, or Carson, or any candidate exempt from being pushed? Just since Friday, we’ve passed the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, having seen both another young man killed by a cop and more violence in Ferguson. Yet we still have black conservatives like Carson letting the world believe that black activists trying to fix this are the true racial problem, and some white liberals telling them to ask for help more politely.