Angela Peoples, of GetEqual, was one of the organizers of the group that disrupted the Martin O’Malley / Bernie Sanders Town Hall at Net Roots Nation on Saturday. Pamela reported on that yesterday in #BlackLivesMatter Protesters Disrupt Netroots Nation Sanders & O’Malley Town Hall.
I bumped into Ms. Peoples later in the day, and she was nice enough to speak with me for a few minutes.
I’m more of an opinion guy than a reporter, but Ms. Peoples’ perspective here is more important than mine, so I’ll get to my opinions later. Although she was speaking for herself, I suspect the views she expressed represent those of the great majority of her collaborators.
By way of background, I spoke to several people from the mostly white audience after the event. Their view largely was that the disruption was inappropriate or that the initial disruption was fine, but that the disruptors were wrong to keep going after the first 15 minutes or so.
So, I asked Ms. Peoples for her reaction to those views.
“Civility,” she explained, “is a luxury afforded to those with privilege. When people are being pulled over for random traffic stops and losing their lives, the opportunity for civility goes right out the window.”
As Pamela suggested in her piece, it was breathtaking to see how poorly O’Malley and Sanders handled the unexpected disruption. I was curious to hear Ms. Peoples’ reaction to the apparent failure of both candidates to anticipate being confronted with tough questions from the Black community. To her, it was simple. She wasn’t interested in hearing canned talking points, so the political ineptitude of Sanders and O’Malley being completely unprepared didn’t faze her. “Just be a human being,” she suggested. Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation to me.
Okay, here’s my take. First, this shouldn’t be that hard for white people to get their heads around.
Second, the dismay expressed by most in the audience at the disruption is beyond pathetic. Check out the cost / benefit analysis of the disruption:
The cost: Had there been no disruption, the audience members would have been able to hear the candidates’ mini-stump speeches and their canned talking points given in response to the questions from the moderator. Call me crazy, but that seems like an incredibly modest cost.
The benefit: The audience members got to see the utter cluelessness and ineptitude of both candidates on an issue of urgent social justice. In this regard, Pamela understated the lameness of O’Malley’s response. He actually said “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Sanders, remarkably, was worse. Unlike O’Malley, he had time to collect his thoughts, as he was backstage for 20 minutes or more after the disruption first got under way. Apparently, he used that time to review his stump speech. He was so un-facile that he could not pivot away from his prepared opening remarks in order to address the protestors. Then, rather than validating their concerns, he chose to condescend, to suggest that what they needed to be concerned about was not the deaths of their brothers and sisters but black jobs (you know, the subject he could recite statistics on), and to be dismissive, saying “of course Black lives matter,” in a tone such that “of course” implied that the question was a silly one. It was terrible.
Neither Sander nor O’Malley nor their advisors had anticipated the need to speak to members of the Black community. I don’t know how they managed to be so ill-prepared for this moment, but the lack of preparation came across as utter tone-deafness and lack of empathy.
I like Bernie Sanders. I hope he finds the judgment to apologize publicly for his performance. The irony here is that deep down inside, he probably gets it. I’ve not written him off. Yet.
But this needs to be a “teachable moment” for Bernie.
It needs to be one for a large swath of his supporters as well, those who were angered by the disruption yesterday. Essentially, they’re lashing out at the disruptors because of the impact it had on their candidate. That impact, however, was caused not by the actions of the disruptors but by their own candidate’s shortcomings. Consider how Sanders’ supporters would feel if, when the disruptors asked Sanders to say their name, he had said something like this:
I don’t know your name, but I know names like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice. Yes, Black lives matter. They matter every bit as much as white lives. And the violent actions of police towards those whom they are charged to protect is intolerable. Even more intolerable is the failure to prosecute the wrongdoers. We must do better. We must end this disgusting, upside down world where Blacks feel fearful in the presence of law enforcement instead of more safe and secure. I don’t have all the answers. But I hear you, and I promise you as President Black lives will matter to me.
I think Sanders had it in him to say that. I don’t think my words differ from his true feelings. My guess is that his own words to express those feelings would have been more powerful than mine.
But on this occasion, Sanders failed. He had a clear opportunity to embrace the moment. Had he done so, his words undoubtedly would have been along the lines of what I scripted above. And he would have brought the house down, including the disruptors.
Instead of embracing the moment, however, Sanders rejected it. He didn’t want to pivot away from his precious stump speech and talking points.
And he, and a huge swath of his supporters, were angered that he was asked to do so.
But that isn’t the fault of the disruptors. The only thing they did was give him a golden opportunity to speak out on one of the most urgent matters of social justice I’ve seen in my 58 years of existence and, more importantly, the only issue that matters right now to them and millions of Blacks across the country.
I hated to see O’Malley and Sanders fail so badly yesterday. I wanted them to succeed. I still want them to succeed. But I won’t delude myself into believing that Angela Peoples or her collaborators caused them to fail. As Ms. Peoples told me, all they had to do was be human beings. Can anyone rationally accuse her of setting the bar too high?