Monday, August 10, 2015

It isn't nice

So, here's the thing:  interrupting Bernie Sanders at a political rally is not the same as being the heroes described in a Malvina Reynolds' song:

It isn't nice to block the doorway,
It isn't nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.

It isn't nice, it isn't nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom's price,
We don't mind.

We have tried negotiations
And the three-man picket line,
Mr. Charlie didn't see us
And he might as well be blind.

Now our new ways aren't nice
When we deal with men of ice,
But if that is Freedom's price,
We don't mind.

Because, as Robert Kuttner acknowledges, Bernie Sanders is a soft target.  He's not going to wrest the microphone away from someone who takes the stage and calls anyone who doesn't want her on stage a "racist."  And he's certainly not going to arrest her, turn dogs loose on her, fire water cannons, or send in goons to beat her nearly to death with billy clubs.

That's what isn't nice; that's what Malvina Reynolds was getting at.

It wasn't "nice" for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to be in that Birmingham Jail.  We so revere King now we've forgotten how scandalous it was for a Christian minister who was supposed to be improving the lives of the "Negro" to be in jail.  That wasn't seen as a blight on the city of Birmingham, that was seen as a blot on the efforts of the pastor; at least by whites it was.  He was right, we were wrong, but he went to jail to prove it.  He didn't stand on a stage and call us all "racists" because we disapproved of his actions that put him in jail.

Bullying a politician who can't win by agreeing with you (what kind of negotiator you gonna be with Iran?  with Putin?) on-stage, or by having security hustle you off stage (think of the optics of that!), is not "direct action."  It's bullying.  Taking the stage and telling the audience that boos you, they are racists is not direct action; it's bullying.   To go back to Dr. King's letter for a moment:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.
Take the fact finding as given:  black lives matter, and too many black men (especially) are killed because they are black.  Sandra Bland was pulled over for two reasons:  Driving While Black, and having an Illinois license plate.  The former was the one that eventually get her arrested.  Now, what negotiations have occurred to correct this problem?  Dr. King didn't address the nation  every time he tried to correct injustice; he addressed the city, the local, the "grassroots."  The Civil Rights Act was a result of that decade long effort, not the beginning of it. And what self-purification does it take to grab a microphone at a public event and call the audience "racists" because they don't respond with cheers and applause to the interruption?  Finally, then, there is direct action.  What is that?

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
What dialogue are you inviting when you tell an audience to shut up and listen to you?  When you force the featured speaker to leave the stage so you can dominate the conversation and turn it into a monologue? What community are you forcing to confront "the issue" with such tactics?  Seattle?  Ferguson?  The South?  America at large?  And what law are you going to pass to make all police departments across the country stop treating blacks as a suspect class?

Dr. King didn't stop working for social justice when the Civil Rights Act was passed.  He didn't retire when LBJ got the Voting Rights Act through Congress a year later.  He was still working at the grassroots, trying to get justice for garbage workers, when he was assassinated.   I'll be happy to see Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton take up the slogan "Black Lives Matter" and treat it seriously.

But I don't think it will really make any difference; any more than the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act ended racism in America.  The direct action needed to change that reality is much more direct, and much more off-stage, than anything any politician or stage-grabber can ever do.

UPDATE:  Interestingly, the protestors who interrupted Sen. Sanders in Seattle may not have been part of Seattle BLM, but rather of a splinter group, "Outside Agitators 206."  Is the Senator listening to the concerns of BLM because of those protestors, or in spite of them? (I ask because Sen. Sanders was talking to Symone Sanders of BLM (legit!), now his national campaign press secretary, starting 3 weeks ago.  Just to keep all the causes and effects in the right order.)  As ever, the devil is in the details.

 And even setting that aside as inside baseball that's lost under the stitches somewhere, Charlie Pierce is right:  "Shouting down Bernie Sanders does nothing to solve any problem worth fighting against. It just doesn't."


  1. The alleged leftist community in Seattle has some really childish people in it. This "Outside Agitators 2006" sounds like it's what happens when being the most leftist of all becomes competitive. Which has a track record of only helping the opponents of change.

    There are a lot of idiots on the play left.

  2. I don't have any idea why my computer is generating multiple postings of comments here. Sorry.