The Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders has been drawing huge crowds wherever he goes – more than 100,000 people in recent weeks – and is tapping into Democrats’ frustration with the Obama presidency and the corporate control of government. Sanders is campaigning on issues that actually affect most Americans, such as defending social security, ending student debt, and restoring regulations on bankers.
This is a much more important phenomenon than Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican primaries, something that obsesses the mainstream media. Trump’s success is due entirely to the fact that he knows how to speak directly to the Republican base that is cheering on his unabashedly xenophobic billionaire egotism. His open contempt for the broken political system resonates with their feelings of resentment.
What is more important than the personal attributes of either man is the social movements they are energizing. Sanders’ supporters are in the main white liberals, and his presidential campaign has collided on a number of occasions with Black Lives Matter activists demanding recognition of the issue of police violence. After his speech at Networks Nation was interrupted, another speech of his was shut down at a rally in Seattle. While Sanders himself, to his credit, has taken on board many of the activists’ criticisms, his Seattle audience was not as receptive to their message. They attempted to drown out the activists with chants of “All lives matter,” “We stand together” and “Which side are you on?” As well as their discomfort at Sanders’ speech being curtailed, their rejection embodies a long-held social-democratic view that economic issues are more essential than the fight against racism.
According to the Seattle Times: “Some in the largely white audience booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests. Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, shot back, ‘I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,’ accusing the audience of ‘white supremacist liberalism’.” The Stranger blog continued the story: “More vocal members of the crowd began booing in response to Johnson. Johnson spoke through the heckling, welcoming Bernie to the town of Seattle, where ‘white supremacist liberalism’ prevails. She called for four-and-a-half minutes of silence in honor of Michael Brown. … After some more booing, the crowd again silenced itself. During the silence, people screamed ‘Bernie matters,’ and ‘all lives matter’.”
Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle NAACP, said he was surprised at how hostile some in the liberal crowd were to the protesters. “I know they were there to hear Bernie, but what was missed was the message of these two women,” he said. “I would have loved to have seen Bernie respond to what they wanted.”
After the event, Sanders said he was “disappointed” at the disruption, but at a later rally that day announced the hiring of a new press secretary, Symone Sanders, a Black Lives Matter supporter. She said they had discussed the issue of racial inequality and she suggested to him “racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” a theme he took up in later press statements and a racial justice manifesto.
Brooklyn-based writer Syreeta McFadden commented in the Guardian: “Arguably, Sanders was less of the target of the message from the Netroots and Seattle Black Lives Matter protesters than were his supporters and their professed allyship. Those Seattle supporters, for instance, proceeded to prove the protesters’ point when they produced a counter chant to drown out the message from possible and probable future BLM protests at Sanders rallies.”
Jennifer Roesch, an activist with the International Socialist Organization, has made a serious attempt at a Marxist analysis of the way race and class intersect. She writes that the idea that racial inequality is a symptom of economic equality “fails to capture the dynamics by which capitalism was established in the United States and by which it is sustained. … Racism and capitalism grew up together in America [on the foundation of slavery] and cannot be separated from one another. Racism is not merely a product of economic inequality, but also part of how that inequality is produced and maintained.”
“Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform,” she continues. “Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities, and have to be understood as a corollary to a ruling-class program of austerity designed to permanently lower the standard of living in this country. But to analyze this relationship merely as cause (austerity) and symptom (racism and police violence) is to miss the ways in which racism and repression are indispensable parts of the ruling-class project.”
White leftists have a clear responsibility to engage with the issues that black activists raise, rather than rejecting them as disrupters. At the same time, there is a danger of making the campaign for social and economic justice a black-white issue. Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Al-Jazeera: “No matter how much people talk about how multicultural things are and how diverse they are, it seems to revert to black and white … How the hell do you break through that black-white way of looking at policy issues?”
The extension of police powers after 9/11 has empowered local forces to follow militaristic strategies of containing protest, encouraged by the open perversions of the rule of law perpetrated by the Bush administration. This is something that imperils all citizens. The Latino community in California, for example, also faces militarized policing. In Anaheim, “there were at least seven killings (by police) between 2011 and 2012,” said Gabriel San Roman, a writer for OC Weekly. Five were Latinos. On the three-year anniversary of the riots following the police shootings of two young Latino men in the town, unlike the large protests in Ferguson on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, politicians and protest groups have ignored the community.
Roesch argues: “For socialists, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important developments in recent years. It has exposed the depths of racism in this country, has brought tens of thousands of people — mainly black, but also white — into the streets, and has politicized millions more.”
She points out the challenges this poses for activists, stressing the need to find ways “to bring these struggles together with the social power of the working class.” However, the working class’s social power has been reduced considerably with the decline of the organized labor movement. What is needed today is the building of a pluralist and inclusive movement that confronts the reality of the racial hierarchy underpinning corporatized state power, while recognizing the right of minority groups to organize in their own way.
As I maintained in a previous post, “there is a connection between the fight for a living wage, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights: new coalitions of people and new forms of resistance are possible at their intersection.”