The spectacle of a Bernie Sanders speaking engagement in Seattle being 'taken over' by young black women protesting about racist oppression, who are then booed by the largely white audience, is almost custom-designed to bring out the worst in everyone. The event was not a Sanders campaign event, but rather a gathering to support what remains of social security in the US. And what the protesters said didn't specifically concern Sanders, so much as the damage done by white-supremacy in Seattle. But the ironic 'welcome' extended to Sanders, and the statement issued after the fact by the protesters, made it clear that they wanted to direct their message to his supporters. The confrontation staged with the largely white audience at the event, who mostly received the women with belligerent silence, and who were described by the speaker as 'racists' and 'white supremacists' (thus predictably prompting boos and indignation), was for the Sandernistas.
The expostulations from Sanders supporters online, in response to this, are stunning. 'Thugs', 'extremists', 'how dare they', 'they just want to divide us', 'they are Soros-funded Hillary shills', 'race isn't the only thing that matters', and so on. Sanders himself threw a bit of a strop. The Sanders campaign now has an 'official' shout-down chant prepared, in the event of such irruptions: 'We Stand Together'. Given that this is intended be chanted to silence black anti-racist activists, it does rather raise the question of what that says about the 'we' thus constituted. What kind of subjectivity is being called into existence here? It's a crying shame. The progressives supporting Sanders are, I think, moving in the right direction. It certainly does not appear that their involvement in this campaign is taking them away from some better plane of activity. I doubt that they are being 'pulled by reformism' away from a more militant, grassroots activity. They are attracted to Bernie Sanders because he calls himself a socialist and advocates some progressive policies that no major Democratic Party candidate has been able to do for some time. And I think that it would be possible to win a minority of them to a more radical, consistently socialist politics.
However, the limitations of many of them have been rather brutally exposed. It's understandable that they would feel a bit aggrieved; hardly anyone responds well to being attacked. And by itself, the tactic makes little sense. After all, why go after Sanders and not the candidate who is most likely to win? Why damn Sanders and praise a 'tough on crime' racist Democratic Party scumbag like Martin O'Malley? The arch insouciance of #bowdownbernie raises a smile, but it's hard to see where it's going, what it concretely seeks. But the unconscious racism displayed in the backlash is almost enough to retroactively make sense of the action. Meanwhile, Clinton plays it cool, keeps her head down, makes some noises about black lives mattering, sends the feelers out to the Black Lives Matter leadership, and allows this deeply American pathology to be played out in Sanders's corner rather than her own.
The overriding problem here is the limited politics of Sanders himself. He is an old-fashioned right-leaning social democrat with, I think, a bent toward colour-blind liberalism. This places him well to the left of the other Democratic Party candidates, of course. Particularly the repellent Hillary Clinton, whose last presidential bid was almost explicitly pivoted on racist resentment. However, the predicates of this kind of social democracy are - as is clear in Sanders's record - still eurocentric, nationalist and imperialist. Sanders is pro-Israel, and despite his criticisms of some US wars, broadly favours extensive US interventions overseas. He is in favour of tough border controls, dismissing open borders as a 'Koch brothers policy'. He voted in favour of Clinton's 1994 crime bill, whose disastrous effect on the African American population and the soaring prison rate
has produced a widespread reaction against it. (It's difficult to believe what a reactionary decade the 1990s was. Worse, in some ways, than the Eighties, when there was still resistance.) Sanders now acknowledges that criminal justice is 'out of control', and favours some humane policies to put it right - although he tends to use 'colour-blind' language in describing it. Yet today, even the Democratic Party leadership - from Obama to Hillary Clinton to its political author, Bill Clinton - now reject that disastrous bill, and say imprisonment rates have to fall. So, while Sanders is raising questions that Democratic Party candidates generally don't, and while the enthusiasm for his campaign is indicative of a leftward shift among some of the Democratic base, he isn't particularly radical on the question of race. And the brittleness and tone-deafness with which he and his campaign keep responding to criticisms on this question, suggests that this colour-blindspot is an Achilles heel.
Sandernistas would do well to reflect on one thing. In a few months' time, Sanders's campaign will be gone. He will not win. He will have raised some issues and, at best, helped push the discourse a bit to the left on those issues. He will have enthused a lot of people, who might then consider joining other campaigns. He could have played a useful role by championing the anti-racist movements, but it looks like that goose is cooked, and he will end up looking like he had to be pressured into taking a decent stance. At any rate, the Bernie Sanders campaign is shortly going to become the Hillary Clinton campaign. So ultimately, what happens to Bernie's speeches doesn't matter hugely. It may be annoying, but it's a triviality.
But Black Lives Matter, or rather the movement with which it has become synonymous, isn't going to go away. And it is far more important to America's long-term future. It might be too much to expect a Third Reconstruction, but even the discussions among the political leadership now about cutting imprisonment rates suggest that it has already leveraged an existing division in the power bloc about the existing modes of racist oppression. BLM has embarked on the process of breaking down the carceral state, putting manners on the cops, ending the death penalty, chastening the racist media, and weakening the racist ideological bonds which consolidate right-wing political coalitions. Summoned into existence by the furious, exasperated, spontaneous grassroots responses to the repeated, legalised murders of African Americans, it has had to confront not just a racist police force, and racist courts, and racist prosecutors, and racist politicians, and racist media, and racist juries, but also the difficulty of trying to build some sort of activist infrastructure anew and form new alliances - and to somehow circumvent the threat of cooptation by the NGO-Democratic Party nexus. Where do the Sandernistas want to be in all this? Do they really want to say that they spent this time complaining about the movement because a couple of activists disrupted the campaign of an old not-very-radical, 'colour-blind' social democrat?