Black Lives Matter dismisses criticism over Sanders disruption

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By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Aug. 11, 2015

Leaders with the Black Lives Matter movement dismissed criticism of the cofounders of its Seattle chapter after their weekend disruption of a Bernie Sanders rally an action that sparked heated debate about the group’s tactics.

Answering claims on social media that the Seattle chapter had acted alone and that its action was not supported by Black Lives Matter, the racial justice group released a statement on Facebook on Sunday saying: “The #BlackLivesMatter organization did not create any petitions demanding apology from Seattle based organizers.”

“We will continue to hold politicians and political parties accountable for their policies and platforms,” the group said, adding that the movement embraces a diversity of tactics and is not affiliated with any presidential candidates.

Their comments came after days of commentary over an action Saturday by Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Seattle chapter. They interrupted a Sanders rally in Seattle by taking over the stage and asking for four and a half minutes of silence to commemorate the four and a half hours the body of Michael Brown — an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last year — was left in the street. Sanders had planned to discuss Social Security and Medicare in front of a crowd of thousands.

The mostly white audience responded with a sustained round of boos, a reaction that, Johnson and Willaford said, illustrated the city’s racism. In a statement released on social media after the event, the Seattle chapter said the two women took over the stage at Sanders’ event because he and white progressives in Seattle are “utterly and totally useless (when not outright harmful) in terms of the fight for Black lives.”

A day after the disruption, Sanders released a proposal detailing his strategy to address racial justice and economic inequality, leading some activists and commentators to say that proved the tactic worked.

Johnson elaborated on her actions in a radio interview Monday with #TWIBNation’s “This Week in Blackness” show.

“Going after Sanders is super, super important because he’s supposed to be as far left and progressive as we can possibly get,” she said. “We have scores and scores of white liberal progressives and yet we still have the same racial problems.”

Still, the action sparked controversy within the Black Lives Matter movement about its long-term goals and priorities, particularly after a similar protest by Tia Oso, national coordinator for the Black Immigration Network, at a speech by Sanders in July in Arizona.

Some activists criticized Johnson and Willaford, saying their actions did nothing to improve the lives of most African-Americans. “This Bernie Sanders hoopla is ultimately about campaign jobs and foundation funding, not emancipation for the masses,” according to R.L. Stephens II of the Orchestrated Pulse, a multi-racial, social justice news website.

The criticism of the women’s actions was, in itself, revealing, Seattle activist Gregory Lewis told Al Jazeera via email.

“The event showed conclusively that even the most so-called ‘progressive’ American is in fact a fascist when it comes to the rights and lives of Black people,” Lewis said. He helped coordinate the first media committees in Ferguson last year after the fatal police shooting of Brown.

Others involved with Black Lives Matter emphasized that it is a “collective project” of more than 30 chapters, with space for different opinions and tactics. “Regardless of the merits of this individual action, which among some, are still up for debate, one isolated incident cannot be the basis of judgment for the movement as a whole,” Darnell L. Moore, who co-organized the 2014 Ride to Ferguson with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, wrote in Mic.

Danielle C. Belton, a St. Louis native and editor of the politics and culture blog The Black Snob, embraced the messiness of the debate in an article for The Root, a black news website: “Movements are beautifully messy, and it’s mythology if you think there was ever a time all the black folks were all on the same page, politely marching together toward a common goal.”

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