Being a politician is a tough job; being a black person in the United States is tougher.
The two ideas clashed earlier this month in Phoenix, AZ at Netroots Nation, the country’s largest progressive gathering. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at the event, and I had the opportunity to attend. I stood in the front row on the left side, clutching my “Bernie 2016” sign. I was hopeful for him to share his ideas for the country and inspire the progressives in the room. But I don’t think many people in the room, Bernie included, were expecting the amount of criticism with which he was forced to confront.
Before Bernie’s speech, Senator Martin O’Malley spoke. He’s also running for the democratic presidency. In the talk-show-esque setting, Malley was asked a few questions; midway through, a group of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors marched in, loudly chanting “which side are you on, my people?”
O’Malley had no choice but to remain quiet as they chanted, “black lives matter” and “Sandra Bland, say her name.” O’Malley appeared frustrated as he tried to answer questions over the protests, and shouted back, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” This was met with groans and boo’s. The contrast between the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter have spurred debate since the BLM slogan was created.
The boo’s were for a good reason; responding to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” misses the point, because the value of life of a young white person is rarely questioned, but the value of a young black person often is. A CNN article illustrated this point with the analogy “Imagine a series of sexual assaults by men against women on a campus. Someone says, ‘Men on this campus need to stop raping women!’ And someone responds, ‘Well, everyone should just stop raping everyone.’ You can see why some women might feel this is missing the point,” the article states.
Statistically, men are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault—according to a 2011 study, for female rape survivors, 98.1 percent of the time a man was the perpetrator. Similarly, black people are more likely to be killed by the cops than white ones—according to Think Progress, black male teens are 21 percent more likely to be killed by cops than white ones.
After Malley exited and Bernie took the stage, he too was met with Black Lives Matter’s chants and pleas for him to “say her name, Sandra Bland.” While he had more sense than telling the protestors “white lives matter,” he told them yes, black lives mattered, and then attempted to talk over them about income inequality.
In the moment, I stood, frustrated at BLM’s chants. I’d come here to see Bernie, and protestors weren’t letting him talk. I wanted to shout at them to please quiet down. I wanted to tell them “Bernie is on your side, and he’s your only hope for this election.” I wanted to tell them he cares deeply about black lives and his track record proves it. I wanted them to go protest Donald Trump, not Bernie.
It wasn’t until after the event, reading up on what exactly happened and talking to people involved that I realized what I’d just experienced.
As a white person of privilege, I’m not used to getting talked over, shut out or not listened to daily. I realized that I’d been hit with just a taste of the cold reality of being black: every day, people of color are talked over, ignored or told to be quiet. Every day, black people feel inconceivably frustrated by the ignorance and privilege of white people.
According to BLM, every 28 hours a black person is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement. That’s one black person dead for about every day you’re living.
Since its formation two years ago, BLM has been speaking out against the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement—Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, just to name a few.
Earlier this month, a 28-year-old black woman named Sandra Bland was stopped by white state trooper Brian T. Encinia for reportedly failing to use a signal when switching lanes. In the dash cam video released by Texas officials, Bland refuses to get out of the car, stating she has the right to do so. The confrontation continues off-camera, and Bland is audibly heard saying the officer knocked her head into the ground.
Three days after her arrest, Bland reportedly died in her cell.
More recently (and locally), University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who is white, fatally shot 43-year-old Samuel Dubose, who was black and reportedly unarmed. Dubose had been pulled over for a missing front license plate and was later shot in the head.
These deaths are not something we can brush over and ignore any longer, and that’s exactly the point BLM was trying to make. Sure, the room was full of progressives—Bernie included—who make innumerable efforts to reduce racism. But the movement wasn’t to make a point to people of color. They already know, live and experience the effects of racism every day.
This was a push for Bernie to further push conversation about racism in our country. This was for the people who scoff at the movement and respond with “white lives matter, too.” This was for the conservatives scrolling through their daily news and reading about what exactly happened that day and why their movement was so, so important.
I’ve interviewed a few people from the BLM movement, I’ve been to a rally and I follow the news, but I’m not going to pretend I know what people of color go through. All I have are the words I’ve absorbed from the times I’ve spent listening. It is true that you cannot fully grasp the effects of racism until you experience them. To white readers, if you consider yourself an ally, realize that there is still work to be done. Being an ally goes beyond a singular declarative statement. It’s a constant detox of racism in a society where black people are vilified. Let us choose to stand in solidarity, listen and spread the word of the BLM movement.