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Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders, and the power of an interruption

Acting in Faith  |  By Greg Elliott, Aug 19, 2015
Black Lives Matter activist and Bernie Sanders

Black Lives Matter activist, Mara Jacqueline Willaford, face-to-face with Bernie Sanders at Seattle rally.

Photo: Creative Commons / flickr user Doug Pieper

A white person attending the Bernie Sanders' rally in Seattle last week probably understood what was happening as an unwelcome, uninvited interruption of Bernie’s attempts to speak on social programs. But in the world of Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, the two Black Lives Matter activists who took the stage, they weren’t just interrupting Bernie Sanders—they were interrupting white supremacy.

There have been a lot of great articles written on this event, and I encourage you to read as many of them as possible, including Darlene Cunha’s piece for Time, Dara Ling’s post on Vox, or this blog from Jamie Utt.

You can also read Johnson’s own comments on her actions, and watch an interview with her on MSNBC.

Johnson and Willaford arrive at the podium (flickr user Doug Pieper 8.8.15; Creative Commons)

Johnson told MSBC: “I think it’s really interesting to note that no one is really engaging with the content of what I said on the stage. I read out a lot of claims about Seattle and Seattle’s racism and our national racism, and yet people are trying to go after my personal character and just derail and derail and derail, and that signals to me that the things that I said were spot on.”

So what did she actually say? Here is an excerpt from her remarks on Aug. 8:

I would like to welcome you to this place called Seattle, which is actually occupied Duwamish land, stolen and hypocritically named after Chief Seattle. We are located in King County, where the silhouette of Martin Luther King reigns high while we spend $210 million dollars building a new jail to imprison Black children. Welcome to Seattle, where our Seattle police department has been under federal consent decree for the past three years and yet has been riddled by use of force, racial profiling, and scandals throughout the year. I want to welcome you, Bernie, to West Lake, where we said "Black Lives Matter" on Black Friday. We shut down West Lake, and we shut down the tree lighting. And we have anointed this land saying, “We will fight for Black lives no matter what it takes.” Welcome to Seattle, where the Seattle School Department suspends Black students at a rate six times higher than their counterparts. Bernie, welcome to Seattle, where we have undergone intense gentrification in the central district, which used to be the only place where we Black people could live legally in Seattle. Welcome. This is what we have to deal with here.

At this point, the shouting from the crowd turns very ugly, but Johnson eventually succeeds in getting the crowd to observe 4 ½ minutes of silence in honor of the one-year anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown.

Johnson and Willaford at the podium, continuing despite booing and shouting from the audience (flickr user Doug Pieper 8.8.15: Creative Commons)

Rewatching the footage, I couldn’t help but ask myself, has a crowd of tens of thousands of white people ever listened to the voice of a 24-year-old Black woman who was not performing for them?

With all the discussion over not what she said, but how she said it, I am reminded of the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple during Passover. Were his actions wise? Wasn’t it rude of him to interrupt Passover? If he had wanted to get his point across, shouldn’t he have just asked the temple priests to remove the money changers?

And what about early Quakers who regularly interrupted church services? They would walk into a church uninvited, head straight to the front of the room, take over the podium (the “microphone” of the time), outwardly criticize what the priest was saying, and share their own beliefs.

Sound familiar?

I don’t know about you, but the actions of Johnson and Willaford seem pretty Quaker, at least historically Quaker. It should be noted that Marissa Johnson graduated cum laude in 2013 from Seattle Pacific University, where she studied theology and was inspired by her professor to see “how theology could affect the real world.” Sounds like “Faith and Practice” to me.

But how about what she said? In white Seattle, a welcome to the city would include recommendations for great coffee shops, a visit to the Space Needle, cool neighborhoods for window-shopping, and much, much more. This Buzzfeed list says it all.

One-Year Commemoration of the murder of Michael Brown at Barclays Center (flickr user The All-Nite Images 8.9.15; Creative Commons)

In Black Seattle, a welcome would look exactly like what Johnson described: the realities of racist policing, mass incarceration, stolen land, a history of red-lining, and “intense gentrification.”

Recently, I flew into Milwaukee on a work trip. I was looking for a good, reasonably priced gluten-free restaurant and found a Mexican restaurant on my phone. As I parked my car in front, I realized that I was in a pretty cute neighborhood. There were lots of trees, historic buildings, neat shops, a juice bar, a brewery, and many charming houses.

I did not know that I was just blocks from the 53206 zip code, a neighborhood in which 62 percent of men spend time in prison by age 34, and only “one [out] of every 25 job-seeking people” can find full-time employment. I also didn’t know that Wisconsin “has the highest percentage of incarcerated black men among all 50 states, [and] now spends more on prisons than on education.”

I’m guessing 53206 doesn’t make it onto the “Top 10 reasons to visit Milwaukee” list.

Johnson taking a pause and a sign of solidarity (flickr user Doug Pieper 8.8.15; Creative Commons)

The real offense that Johnson and Willaford were guilty of was interrupting white space with Black reality. But the more these two worlds are seen as one, the better, because the white world depends on the invisibility and oppression of the Black world in order to survive. If we white folks are willing to truly see Marissa Johnson’s world and listen to her words, we will surely find ourselves unable to go back to our own world unchanged.

Let’s revisit early Friends. Imagine yourself sitting in a church in Nottingham in 1649 when a wild-eyed, red-haired young man named George Fox goes to the front of the church and interrupts the preacher to declare that the Holy Spirit “shall lead…into all truth,” an act for which he is imprisoned.

Would you be angry at him?

Would you ignore what he said?

Or would you be changed forever?

About the Author

Greg serves as the Friends Relations Associate for AFSC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Greg grew up attending North Branch Friends Meeting at the Curtis family farm in the Poconos. Over the last ten years, he has facilitated numerous workshops for activists and Friends on a variety of topics, including anti-oppression activism, empire, and the "Inquirer's Weekend" at Pendle Hill with Trayce Peterson. Greg currently lives in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

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