Privileged Critics Of BLM Protest At NN15 Are All Talk, No Action
Thousands of progressives in attendance July 18 at the Netroots Nation 2015 conference in Phoenix, Arizona were treated to what many considered a very rude interruption of the proposed Bernie Sanders love-fest that they were so eagerly anticipating. Not long after undocumented immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas opened the session and introduced Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a vocal group rose up to demand, “What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?” The initial bemusement of those in attendance turned – in many cases – to privileged outrage, inside the convention center.
What happened is that Tia Oso, Black Immigration Network Coordinator and AZ Organizer at Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and her group of protesters completely hijacked the NN15 Town Hall conversation and through brilliant use of civil disobedience forced two candidates for President, as well as a group of people you would think would be ardently in support of their cause, to acknowledge the fact that #BlackLivesMatter matters, and will not be ignored any longer as a topic of discussion for progressives, or their candidates for President. The way in which the Town Hall participants reacted to this unexpected derailment of their plans and the ensuing knee-jerk criticism of the action from observers exposed underlying bedrocks of privilege that exist in the progressive community. It is important to reveal privilege when it is discovered and discuss it, especially in forums that are designed to advance the progressive agenda, for it is invisible to those who have it, (or like the Emperor’s New Clothes, those who choose to be blind to it).
The concept of “privilege” doesn’t get talked about much, because people of privilege don’t appreciate having it pointed out to them that some of the advantages they’ve enjoyed in life were due to something other than their own unique marvelousness.
American academic and professor Peggy McIntosh…described white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets” which white people do not want to acknowledge, and which leads to them being confident, comfortable and oblivious about racial issues, while non-white people become unconfident, uncomfortable and alienated.
The privileged want to believe the myth of meritocracy, in which anyone can achieve their dreams if only they play by the rules and work hard enough. Therein lies the root of the criticism of the BLM protest action: it’s not that the privileged critics disagree with the message — they just disagree with the timing, the location, the audience and the method which BLM used to make their voices heard.
Perhaps this explains the nearly unanimous response from the white male community in criticism of the Black Lives Matter protest at the NN15 Town Hall. For examples, one must only read the comments below my colleague Elisabeth Parker’s piece regarding the disingenuous tack mainstream media is taking on this “epic act of creative disruption,” to get a hint of the privileged mansplaining that is running rampant regarding the “inappropriateness” of the BLM action. One individual even suggested to this author that Black Lives Matter did a dis-service to their “brown brothers and sisters” by stealing a stage that had been reserved to entertain questions regarding issues of immigration and failing to proceed in a way that honored the intersectionality of their concerns. That’s when these critics exposed themselves for what they really are: All talk, no action.
I am no stranger to activism and the concept of using civil disobedience to make a point. This is due, in large part, to the leadership and mentoring I received from Randy Parraz, the founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona, (CBA), the organization responsible for the historic recall of disgraced former AZ Senate President Russell Pearce. In fact, my participation in protest actions with CBA, against then-Governor Jan Brewer’s vindictive executive order denying driver’s licenses to Dreamers, (aka those covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, program), led to my arrest in the state capitol a few years ago.
To say Randy is an activist hero in Phoenix is putting it mildly, and I was one of many who was glad to see him among us on Friday at the NN15 sponsored ARPAIO FREE AZ event by Puente. Randy has been busy traveling the U.S. since February 2014 in his capacity as National AFL-CIO Coordinator of Governance and Organizational Leadership Development for the West, developing leaders in trade unions to become more active in order to build power in the labor movement. He noted that there was no representative from NN15 to kick off the march, which was to take control of the streets of Phoenix and surround the infamous jail of convicted racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In agreement, I expressed my disappointment with the fact that many NN15 attendees who had been in the Town Hall with Elizabeth Warren immediately preceding the planned march, had risen from their seats and left the hall while Carlos Garcia of Puente was organizing those in attendance to march in support of the protest. When it came time to stop the conversation and actually participate, at high noon on a hot Phoenix desert day, most of the progressive NN15 Town Hall attendees beat a hasty retreat to some air-conditioned locale.
On the contrary, Black Lives Matter’s Ms. Oso is a woman of action. When Tia took the stage from NN15, I remembered the last time I’d seen her was on August 14, 2014 at a “One Moment of Silence” event she coordinated to commemorate those killed by police violence. The most recent victim at the time the event was planned had been Michael Brown, shot down in the street only days before on August 9, 2014. I wondered how many in the convention center remembered that it had been one year, nearly to the day, when Eric Garner, was choked to death by the NYPD, June 17, 2014.
As an activist, the “One Moment of Silence” gathering was a natural draw for me, offering a safe space to share the fierce emotions I have regarding use of excessive force by the police, especially as it pertained to those who are suffering from some mental disorder or extreme psychological stress. I felt myself in a safe space to be included by a community that has endured endless abuse at the hands of systemically supported and militarized police — the black community. To be among these strong survivors, who were a willing and accepting audience, sympathetic to my story, was an honor for which I am still deeply grateful. Keenly aware of my own privilege in the moment, I actually felt an apology in my soul for not being black, while taking a megaphone to tell my experience with police violence. Near the end of the event, we received the horrible news of the latest victim in our own midst: Michelle Cusseaux, whose family had called for assistance getting her transported to a psychiatric facility, had been shot dead in her doorway to the cries of the military signal to fire, “Drop the hammer!”
Had it really been a year since those tragic events of deadly violence? It dawned on me in a heavy crash that nothing had improved since then –nothing had changed — if anything, police violence, particularly against the black community, had increased. I listened as the list of those killed at the hands of the police was read and the protesters demanded, “Say my name!” It was shocking to be jolted out of my reflections by the loudly barked suggestion of a handsome white man near me to the protesters: “Shut the fuck up!” Horrified, I immediately flashed him the “Mommy says, ‘NO!’ to that behavior” look, but he was supported by many in the audience who began to chant, in support of the usurped Gov. O’Malley, “Let him speak! Let him speak!”
The video below allows me to share a peek into the atmosphere of the Town Hall during Senator Sander’s hijacked audience, but it fails to convey just how thick the space was with the tension of unanswered questions and the frustration of being dismissed and put on hold, yet again, by someone who clearly views himself, and expects to be treated like, The Man. Watch the painful quarter of an hour below:
The entire scene was so intense — the video can’t accurately record the murmur of dissent that continuously rumbled from the BLM activists, immediately below the surface of Senator Sanders’ every word. Did you catch the subtle behaviors of privilege in Bernie’s address to his proposed constituency? The way he waved off the cries and shouts of those who were demanding recognition; how he sat unspeaking in his chair as if waiting indulgently for Vargas to get the crowd under control so he could continue; the manner in which he petulantly and passive-aggressively tried to turn audience sympathy in his direction, “…if you don’t want me here…;” and the sound he made when asked if there was any specific legislation he had supported that benefited the African-American community. All of these behaviors screamed from the stage like neon banners proclaiming the unspoken message Senator Sanders was inadvertently conveying to those courageously taking a stand in front of him: “My talking points are what is important here. I was told these people wanted to hear what I have to say. You are interlopers and unwelcome. I refuse to acknowledge your message, much less endorse it.” Or to use Bernie’s exact words at one point, “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do!”
“Oh, no you won’t!” was the response Black Lives Matter gave to the privileged in attendance at NN15 Town Hall by refusing to yield and demanding that their message be hear; all the resulting criticism is ego-driven response to having NN15’s ordered apple-cart agenda upended. Activist leader and organizer Randy Parraz would like to ask the members of the progressive community who are critical of BLM’s decision to take action into their own hands:
“What’s more rude? Interrupting a scripted political event or being shot down for being black? BLM’s protest was not about comfort, or other peoples’ timeline — it was about showing what it feels like to be disenfranchised. If you’re shouting down a group of people desperately trying to bring their cause to your attention, you’re pretty privileged.
“Anyone can put together a workshop of talking heads, and it seems that there are plenty of people attending NN15 who are writers and and news outlets looking to get that viral byline and gain their 10 minutes of fame. Did BLM hurt the organization by interrupting the planned flow of events? No! They chose to be creative and capture attention for their issue, which was being ignored. They had the courage to take a risk.”
The risk paid off immeasurably for the Black Lives Matter activists — people in the progressive movement, including the esteemed Senator Sanders, are talking about their cause, while also perhaps examining more closely the issue of privilege and how it can undermine our progressive discourse. When it comes right down to it, critical privileged progressives would do well to remember that actions speak louder than words.
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Chimene is a third-generation native of Maricopa County, Arizona, a graduate of ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunications, and a passionate local activist for progressive change.