You’ve Got to Fight the Powers That Be

Now that everyone has had a week to calm down, can we take a moment to salute the bravery of the Black Lives Matter activists at the 2015 Netroots Nation conference?

I don’t think I would have had enough courage to speak truth to power the way these proud protesters did, to make a simple but firm request for Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to fight forcefully for racial justice. I would have been far too intimidated, far too deferential. Yet these activists were unafraid, undeterred, unbought and unbossed–and unquestionably, they brought hope to those who desperately need it.

I reject the argument that what these protesters did was somehow lacking in decorum and civility. Decorum and civility didn’t prevent the untimely deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. In a time of crisis for communities of color, politeness doesn’t cut it.

The Black Lives Matter activists understood that they had to take extraordinary measures to ensure that the issue of black lives not mattering in many parts of this country is elevated to the “main event” of American political discussion. What they did is indistinguishable from what climate activists did two days earlier at a Hillary Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire–and just as appropriate, from a moral and political standpoint.

There are certain issues that must be placed at the forefront of American politics in order to prevent such issues from being completely ignored. In the age of big money and small attention spans, most candidates run PG-13 campaigns designed to offend as few voters as possible by editing out anything controversial. Like climate hawks, Black Lives Matter activists are calling for NC-17 campaigns filled with adult policy content, explicit discussions and naked truths about what’s going on in the United States. The voters are grown-ups, these activists argue: they can handle mature material.

We certainly need to have grown-up conversations about the abuse being inflicted upon our citizens and upon our climate. Are these protesters disruptive forces? Yes–and that’s the point. Martin Luther King Jr. was a disruptive force. The gay and lesbian Americans who fought back against brutality at the Stonewall Inn were disruptive forces. Those who fought for women’s rights, labor rights and voting rights were disruptive forces–and America would have been a far crueler country without those forces.

There is something invigorating about watching footage of these activists at the Netroots Nation conference. They honored the noblest of American traditions–the tradition of standing up and speaking out to prevent the values and principles we cherish from being knocked down or pushed aside. What they did on July 18 was the pure product of patriotism.

Frederick Douglass famously declared that power concedes nothing without a demand. The Black Lives Matter movement made its demand in Arizona, just as the climate-justice movement made its demand in New Hampshire. Somewhere, Mr. Douglass is applauding.

UPDATE: Brad Friedman notes that the Black Lives Matter protest at Netroots Nation “is what democracy looks like.” I concur. Plus, more from Sam Seder, and an alternative perspective from Cenk Ugyur.

SECOND UPDATE: Brad Friedman interviews Tia Oso, who led the Netroots Nation protest. Plus, more from the New York Times.

THIRD UPDATE: More from MSNBC and NBC Meet the Press.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.