Hillary Clinton’s planned speech on criminal justice reform was briefly disrupted on October 30 by Black Lives Matter protesters:
“The protesters began chanting ‘black lives matter’ a few minutes into her speech. At first, the former secretary of state acknowledged them: ‘Yes they do, and I’m gonna talk a lot about that in a minute,’ she said. She then tried ignoring the protesters, shouting her remarks over the chants. ‘I have some issues to discuss and proposals to make if our friends will allow me to do it. They may actually find them to their liking,’ Clinton said while continuing to speak over the disruption, one of the loudest she had faced on the campaign trail. As the protests continued, Clinton supporters began chanting ‘Let her talk, Let her talk.’ Others chanted, ‘Hillary! Hillary’ very loudly, seemingly to drown out the protesters.”
The reaction, of course, is all too familiar. There is the usual hand-wringing over the tactics of Black Lives Matter, accusations of rudeness, and the claim that BLM’s actions are actually hurting the cause of racial justice. Civil rights luminary, Representative John Lewis, who was present at Clinton’s speech, had some words of criticism:
“‘Most of the things that we did back in the 1960s was good trouble, it was necessary trouble. And so what I try to say to young people is when you see something that is not right, not fair or not just, you have to speak up. You have to speak and make some noise. So in some sense, [protesters] were speaking up. They were speaking out. But we have to respect the right of everybody to be heard,’ he said. ‘And you do that in a non-violent, orderly fashion.’”
Now, being that I am lucky enough to have been born into pretty much every privileged class available, it is not really my place to criticize Lewis’s views on the action. That said, I have to say that I think he, along with everyone else who has called out BLM over the last day, has gotten this one wrong. The disruption in Atlanta was very much right and necessary. #AUCShutItDown, the Black Lives Matter affiliated group that staged the action, issued a statement explaining their reasoning. The entire statement is worth reading, but here is the passage I find most telling:
“#AUCShutItDown wholly dedicates itself to the eradication of harmful practices that provide for the perpetuation of these grievances. These harmful practices include but are not limited to: state violence against black and brown lives, such as police brutality, erasure, and reconstruction of history, and allotment of resources; the exclusion of women, LGBTQIA, differently-abled, non-Christian, poor, and neurodiverse or mentally ill persons in addressing public issues; and the upholding of respectability tactics in the wake of calculated, widespread targeting of black and brown persons.
With full respect to the administration, faculty, and law enforcement of each institution of the AUC and Atlanta officials, we cannot allow conservative policy to restrict the execution of our service to the revolution and the movement.”
Black Lives Matter is responding to an actual crisis. Despite the gains made by the civil rights movement, racial injustice is interwoven into the fabric of our society. And, most importantly, this racial injustice is not as glaringly obvious as it was back in the bad old days of Jim Crow. Certainly, thanks to the Internet and smart phones, police brutality, especially towards people of color, is well documented.
But the horrifying videos that we share on Facebook and Twitter are but the tip of the iceberg. And even in those cases where we have direct video evidence of police malfeasance, the conversation far too often degenerates into claims that the victim brought it upon themselves, that they were a “thug,” that they were insufficiently deferential to officers of the law.
This is not a situation for quiet, measured responses. It is not a situation that will be resolved by polite dialogue. It is a situation that is being ignored, and Black Lives Matter is shouting at the top of their lungs, trying to change that shameful fact. And it is telling that the public’s reaction though times have changed, is much the same as it was in the days of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was condemned as excessive and extreme and, in truth, did not shy away from the same confrontational tactics being employed by Black Lives Matter. The difference between then and now is that, with issues of racial injustice being ignored by far too many, the first task is to raise awareness.
Returning to Hillary Clinton, I submit that she does not yet appreciate that fact. She spoke with Black Lives Matter activists earlier this year, and her words reveal that she does not fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem:
“But you’re going to have to come together as a movement and say, ‘Here’s what we want done about it.’ Because you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, ‘Oh, we get it. We get it. We’re going to be nicer.’ That’s not enough– at least in my book. That’s not how I see politics. So the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical. But now all I’m suggesting is — even for us sinners — find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives, and that’s what I would love to have your thoughts about, because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do.”
That is, yes, a perfectly reasonable response. And Clinton is certainly making positive proposals to address racial injustice. Hell, the speech that BLM briefly disrupted spoke of racial profiling and sentencing disparities. She has moved to distance herself from her husband’s disastrous criminal justice legislation which, at the time, she strongly supported. She has spoken out against police brutality directed at people of color. That is fine and good, but it is not enough. It is nowhere near close to enough. When Americans, especially white Americans, cannot even agree that there is a systemic issue with racial injustice in this country, we have an issue that requires more than speeches and policy proposals. When people can still not even acknowledge the issue then yes, “consciousness-raising” and “advocacy” are absolutely vital. Those who criticize Black Lives Matter’s actions or tactics fail to understand that key point.
Hillary Clinton is speaking out about racial injustice. Good. Bernie Sanders is speaking out about racial injustice. Good. But all the words and speeches in the world mean little until we see actual change, until people finally acknowledge the existence of a crisis in this country! And until that day arrives, Black Lives Matter will continue with their actions, regardless of how “offensive” casual observers find them.
They will continue to be disruptive, and they will continue to be “rude.”…Because that’s what is absolutely necessary.
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