The Progressive Divide

Something my colleague David Atkins wrote this morning at the Washington Monthly jarred something in my head and made me realize that a history lesson is in order. Atkins was discussing the disruption of a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, Washington, yesterday by #blacklivesmatter protesters. He has an interesting perspective and it’s worth considering his point of view. What really caught my attention, however, was his conclusion.

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.

This struck me as ahistorical. Yes, it’s true that Rosa Parks did not protest in Berkeley, but she didn’t “pick” which city she lived in (Montgomery, not Selma) and which bus system she used. But there’s another, more important, reason that Atkins’ example is unfortunate. If there’s a historical precedent for #blacklivesmatter, it doesn’t strike me as being the Montgomery Bus Boycott or even the broader battle against Jim Crow. The most direct ancestor of #blacklivesmatter is the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Now, I know what happened to the Black Panther Party over the years. I know about the schisms within the leadership and their persecution (literally) by the FBI, and how they joined with and split from white progressives, and how charged they are as a political symbol. I do not make this comparison to predict the same future for #blacklivesmatter or to stir up emotions on any side. I merely note that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense arose for a very specific purpose and in a very specific place. They were organized in Oakland in 1966 for the purpose of following around the police to make sure that they didn’t commit violent acts against the black community. And, geography being what it is, the border between Oakland and Berkeley is fluid and often hard to discern. It would not be inaccurate to say that the Black Panther Party began in Berkeley.

Now, I wouldn’t say that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale chose Oakland/Berkeley any more than Rosa Parks chose Montgomery, Alabama. They were all reacting to conditions in their respective communities. Only later on, when their initial acts had spurred bigger organizing efforts, did people begin to make strategic decisions about the location of their protests and expansion.

In retrospect, however, it was significant that the Panthers got their start on the West Coast in one of the most liberal regions of the country. Their whole movement is incomprehensible outside of the context of East Bay politics, and East Bay politics today are incomprehensible without reference to the legacy of the Panthers. In a broader sense, if racism had not been so persistent and lethal in the supposedly racially enlightened East Bay during the mid-1960’s, the cause of black militancy probably never would have caught fire.

It’s not just coincidental that Bernie Sanders has run into confrontations with #blacklivesmatter during his visits to the West Coast in Arizona and Washington. There is a culture there with a long memory, and I think it’s critical to understanding why we’re seeing these tactics used by #blacklivesmatter against a white progressive candidate for the presidency.

Begin with the fact that this fight against police violence is a civil rights movement. It doesn’t have a calendar tied to the 2016 presidential election. It’s a fight that has been going on in some organized form at least since the formation of the Panthers in 1966. It doesn’t care if Ronald Reagan or Jerry Brown are the governor or the president or the governor again. Talk to almost any #blacklivesmatter supporter and they’ll tell you that they don’t really care about who wins the Democratic primary or how their movement might impact the general election, except insofar as their cause is advanced and the candidates are compelled to acknowledge and provide plans to redress their grievances.

Given the history of this civil rights movement, it’s naive and basically foolhardy to argue that white progressives are allies. It was a complete inability of the white political structure of the East Bay to confront the Oakland police department that began the movement in the first place.

So, one level of miscommunication here is simple and straightforward. Supporters of Bernie Sanders are focused primarily on Bernie Sanders as a political candidate in a specific contest that is tied to a specific calendar and that has goals that are tied first to Sanders winning that contest and secondarily (as a fallback position) to preventing the Republicans from winning it. They tend to view everything through these filters and get frustrated when they perceive that #blacklivesmatter does not share their goals or care about potentially undermining them.

Another level of miscommunication arises because supporters of Bernie Sanders perceive their champion as being excellent on the issues that blacks are supposed to care about, and they see themselves as allies of the black community. They certainly do not see themselves as adversaries or among the first dozen groups worthy of being the focus of protest and disruption. But, in the East Bay, at least, it was the liberal establishment, not rabid segregationists from Alabama, who failed the black community and this failure spurred the organized fight against police brutality. If you want to know why it’s so easy to find anti-white-progressive vitriol coming from black organizers on Twitter, for example, it’s because there has never been a sense of common cause or trust on this issue, going back to the very beginning.

Now, I have some problems with Al Giordano’s take on this, primarily because he’s using “white progressive” almost as an epithet and painting with such a broad brush. Just because a segment of the white progressive movement has antagonized the black progressive community with their treatment of President Obama does not mean that it’s fair to characterize all or even most white progressives that way. So, I think Giordano needs to dial it back and reduce the polarizing effect of what he’s arguing. Having said that, the antagonism and lingering bad feelings are real:

This campaign is not about you getting your “Bernie fan boy experience” uninterrupted at a campaign rally. And you don’t get to shout down protesters who want your candidate to lead more with their priorities. You don’t get to yell, as one Sanders supporter did in Seattle today, “Tase them!” You don’t get to say “Bernie marched with Martin Luther King” or “he has done more for your people than those hecklers ever did.”

And you absolutely don’t get to do it when just months ago you cheered the LGBT heckler at Obama’s White House event, when you cheered every time the white ladies of Code Pink did it, when you whined and complained about Obama for six years not giving you your “hope and change” cookies as you define them.

You know why you don’t get that cookie? Because nonwhite Americans saw your dreadful behavior toward Obama all these years. That’s a big reason why. Now you need their support, you gotta court it just like Obama once courted you.

Instead too many of you are on Twitter right now whitesplaining and lecturing and talking down to black folks and people of all hues who happen to see this through the lens of the same team. Oh, yeah, that’s a real bright idea for winning this campaign. Let’s go on Twitter and troll the black people about how they don’t understand Bernie…

…The reason your guy is having such a hard time is that many of you have alienated black, brown, yellow and red people all these years. Those of you who were in New York’s Occupy Wall Street ran the black and hispanic organizers out of there, calling them sell outs for the Democratic party, insisting that you could have “no leaders” to people who build leadership among young people, and through your overall desire to just be in a white college educated ghetto while you tell yourselves you’re “not racist.” So now Bernie is getting the payback for white progressive disrespect of people of color, including of Barack Obama.

I think there are a lot of people who need to hear what Giordano is saying, but I also think we need bridge-builders in the progressive community right now, on both sides of this divide. And I don’t think it’s going to help things to try to shove this on down the throats of Sanders’ supporters and tell them that they’ve earned this disrespect. It won’t work the other way, whitesplaining to black organizers, and it won’t work this way blacksplaining in the other direction.

To begin with, if you’re a white progressive supporter of Bernie Sanders and you consider yourself an advocate of the goals of #blacklivesmatter, the main thing you need to do differently is to stop expecting the anti-police violence movement to operate with or even acknowledge any kind of electoral priority or strategy. Then you need to recognize that this police violence is pervasive and as likely to happen at a BART station in the Bay Area as it is to happen in suburban Saint Louis or Selma, Alabama. Stop complaining that you’re the wrong target for these protests.

On the other side, I won’t argue against a strategy that attempts to arouse white progressives from their complacent slumber, but there needs to be some fairness and respect involved. Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters may not “get” it, and they may respond with hostility or by walking away in a huff, but human nature being what it is, you shouldn’t hold these things against them. They are your most vital potential allies in this fight, and you might need to rattle them for a while but you don’t need to treat them with a lack of charity.

Recognize, first of all, that your tactics do not comport with their immediate priorities, and that their immediate priorities are tied to a calendar and can’t be put off to some later time. For Sanders’ supporters, there is a job to do right now, and that job is to get delegates for their candidate. If that fails, as it probably will, they will want to make sure we’re not dealing with another President Bush or Cruz or Walker or Rubio in a year and a half. You should share (or, at least, respect) that priority even if it isn’t your highest priority, and even if you think it’s largely irrelevant to your cause of fighting police violence. Also, understand that you can hurt the short-term cause of progressive electoral politics through your actions. For one obvious example, the Republican Party has decided that they would rather try to maximize the white vote rather than appeal to people of color. So, contributing to the racial polarization of the country or the perception that the Democrats are “the black party” or are in any way “anti-white” is doing the Republicans’ work for them.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that a little sophistication is called for, and that you should respect the views of political election experts who are worried that the tactics of #blacklivesmatter will effect white voting behavior in the upcoming elections. You may not defer to their wisdom, but you should see what they’re saying and understand that it’s not a dismissal of your goals to question how you’re going about achieving them.

The biggest problem right now, as I see it, is that these two groups have begun a war of words with each other. They are spending in inordinate amount of time insulting each other. This is something you should just refuse to participate in. Try to listen to other people’s point of view and then after you’ve taken that in, express your own. If need be, agree to disagree.

But this is a fight that is not helpful or healthy. No one, including me, can just make some clever argument and make these dividing lines go away. But each of us can control one thing, and that is how we react and behave.

Show people respect. Just do that one thing.

Don’t make this worse.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.