BlackLivesMatter Protesters Err in Attacking Those Who Give Them the Microphone

For the second time in as many months, protesters from BlackLivesMatter forced Bernie Sanders from the stage at a scheduled event. Also for the second time, a later event that same day turned out massive crowds for the underdog Democratic candidate.

As I wrote shortly after the first BlackLivesMatter disruption at Netroots Nation, the issues of police violence and systemic racism in society are incredibly important. Indeed, given the history and continued use of the Southern Strategy by the GOP, it is difficult to imagine making transformative progressive advances without tackling racism forcefully and directly. It is also true that civil disobedience and direct disruptive action have a long and storied history in helping promote and create progressive change. In many ways, the BlackLivesMatter movement is a part of that proud tradition.

That said, there must be space even for allies to offer constructive criticism of the methods used by the movement to achieve universally desired goals. There are of course those who would say that a white male like myself has no business even offering suggestions to black activists on how to engage these issues, due to my inherent privilege and lack of direct experience of the racism they face. That sort of thinking derives from a Foucaultesque perspective on discourse and power dynamics that insists that there is, in fact, no open forum for discussion of politically charged issues–only verbal power conflicts in which the disadvantaged and dispossessed have the right to speak and the privileged have the obligation to listen or walk away. That rhetorical philosophy rejects millennia of philosophical underpinnings of objective debate to privilege an endless series of ad hominem fallacies, stifling discourse in a series of one-way “conversations” that inherently advantage the loudest, angriest and most offended voices, while also leading to nasty intersectionalities in which members of separate disadvantaged classes argue over who is the more aggrieved and disempowered party, and who has the “right” to speak and who has the “obligation” to listen. Fortunately, this stunted philosophy of discourse is largely limited to a few college campuses and the fringes of the left NGO sphere where little and less is actually accomplished to create real social change. In the real world, strategies and theories of change are debatable in an open and competing forum of ideas in and of themselves, without regard to the identity of the person making the argument–particularly when said ideas are coming from individuals acting in good faith with the same ultimate goals.

In that vein, it’s reasonable to ask if forcing Bernie Sanders off consecutive stages is a useful strategy for bringing issues of police violence and structural racism to the foreground. On the one hand, doing so provides an opportunity for activists to make headlines and gain an audience among individuals who are supposedly allies but may not be doing as much as activists might like on their issue of choice. Certainly, climate activists and anti-war activists (among others) could leverage the same complaints. On the other, there is such a thing as bad publicity. And there’s a fine line between disrupting the activities of one’s allies to bring more attention to one’s issues, and being so aggressive with them that they actually become hostile to one’s interests.

That said, if these actions have done more damage than good, the fault lies not with the protesters so much as the event coordinators who have handed the disruptive agents the microphone at these events. No matter how righteous the disrupters’ cause may be, giving away the microphone to any non-scheduled element loses control of the event, altering the power dynamic in such a way that the candidate is forced to either adopt an apologetic and submissive position agreeing with everything being said by the upstaging individuals (certainly undesirable for many reasons), or to argue with them (even less desirable), or simply to walk away from the stage (the best of a series of bad choices.)

But giving away the microphone to protesters in this way isn’t just harmful to the candidate. It’s also harmful to the event organizers and ultimately to the protesters themselves as well.

The power of civil disobedience to create change works best when it involves a universal and very obvious conscience-shocking injustice, the political suppression of a minority voice, the total exhaustion of other political methods of recourse, and a very clear and simple, easily legislated policy demand or set of demands (e.g., independence for India, an end to apartheid, an end to Jim Crow and segregation, etc.)

If the group engaging in civil disobedience is willingly granted the microphone at a managed event by the supposed oppressor, it’s nearly impossible for the disrupters to maintain the audience sympathy required to forgive the chaos and upset caused by the disruption itself. This is, of course, doubly true when the supposed oppressor is not an enemy but an ally within the tent. In order for an action of civil disobedience by an oppressed group to work, the oppressed group must actually remain oppressed in the context of the event. If they’re treated as equals with underdog outsider presidential candidates on stage, it simply looks like a circular firing squad of fractious activists rather than a civil rights movement speaking for the dispossessed without a voice. Once you have the stage and a microphone with a presidential candidate standing behind you (and you’re registered to vote!), it’s hard to gain sympathy for the claim that you don’t have a voice in the process.

That, of course, leads to a key question: why aren’t BLM protesters staging these disruptions at Hillary Clinton or Republican candidate events? The simplest answer is that they would be unlikely to be invited to the stage and given a microphone. But that is precisely why those are the events that BLM should be protesting.

The people who are handing over the microphone and helping them onto the stage aren’t the ones protesters should be taking advantage of for a cheap media opportunity. And event organizers should be mindful that providing such an opportunity for protesters doesn’t do them any favors, either.

Rosa Parks didn’t pick a bus in Berkeley; she picked one in Selma. If civil disobedience is the weapon of choice, it’s probably time to take that weapon to the real enemy.

(Correction: Rosa Parks’ bus protest was in Montgomery, not Selma.)

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.