A note to white progressives

Kyle Campbell

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In the wake of the Ferguson riots in the Spring of 2014, over a hundred UA students associated with the Black Lives Matter movement orchestrated a “die-in” in the Ferguson Center, during which they laid down on the floor of the food court in solidarity with the recently slain teenager Michael Brown. I was not aware of the protest ahead of time, but joined in when I came across it and felt proud of my university and my student community for fostering an environment conducive to peaceful protest.

Then I checked Yik Yak.

The anonymous social media platform was rife with racist undertones, jesting that Planet of the Apes had become reality and that this was “the quietest I’ve ever seen a group of black girls.” The predominant complaint, however, was that the protestors were blocking the line to Chick-fil-A. Scores of white people witnessed a protest over the death of an unarmed teenager and were most disturbed by the lack of availability of chicken sandwiches. That response reminded me that I attend a largely conservative campus in an even more conservative state, and that I’d have to accept tone-deaf bigotry as a fact of life as long as I’m in Alabama.

Fast forward about a year and a half. I was at Netroots Nation: a conference held this year in Phoenix, Arizona, with more liberals than the state has cacti. Discussions were preceded by “ground rules,” attendees asked one another for preferred pronouns, and no one who expected to make friends would admit to enjoying food from a homophobic company like Chick-fil-A. I’d heard speeches from notable Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, but I was most excited for the Presidential candidates forum, which included Governor Martin O’Malley and Senator Bernie Sanders. O’Malley took the stage to great applause and answered questions with vigor, until suddenly a chant erupted from the back of the room. The first of several Black Lives Matter protests to take place at Democratic campaign events this cycle was underway, this one focusing on the death of the jailed Sandra Bland in what was labeled a suicide. The candidates, including Sanders, were allowed little time to speak, and the conference called off the event more than half an hour early. I had a feeling I was on the ground floor of something that would come to shape the 2016 Democratic primary, and I was excited about that.

Then I checked Twitter.

Without the protection of anonymity, conference attendees blasted the BLM protestors for ruining the event. I read the claims of the protestors “acting like animals” and “confirming negative stereotypes,” and I wondered whether progressive open-mindedness was a myth or just something we reserved for pronoun preferences. Attendees wanted to hear the same speech they’d heard dozens of times from their idol, rather than hear new information from a marginalized group about something that didn’t affect them. Scores of white people witnessed a protest over the death of an unarmed 28-year-old and exhibited the same response I saw in Tuscaloosa, though over an absence of words instead of an absence of waffle fries.

Since Netroots Nation, several more BLM protests have taken place at Sanders for President rallies around the country. The responses from Sanders supporters (who are liberal and overwhelmingly white) have been the same: “He’s looking out for everyone’s economic interests,” and “You’re protesting the wrong candidate, why not disrupt Republicans?” These responses completely ignore the goals of Black Lives Matter and the idea of a protest as a means for social change. Black Lives Matter is not about the economy. The devaluation of African-American life, particularly by police forces and the legal system, cannot be remedied with a jobs program. We can’t work if we’re dead. Black Lives Matter doesn’t protest Republicans because it’s easier to gain ground with someone on your side than to start from scratch with an enemy. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and when Dr. King pushed for expanded voter protections the next year, he pushed President Johnson, not George Wallace. To be an ally of a marginalized community is to accept responsibilities; the people you distinguish yourself from, don’t.

Protests are inherently disruptive; the Montgomery bus boycott was effective because the city lost money, and the Selma march was effective because the normal peace of suburban living rooms was shattered nationwide by the reality of Bloody Sunday. And since Netroots Nation, several Democratic Presidential candidates have put forward comprehensive racial justice platforms they may not have even considered before that day. In fact, the day of the Netroots protest, Senator Sanders cancelled his events between that speech and a rally that evening to add support for BLM to his platform. So next time you’re at an event that’s interrupted by protestors, listen to what they have to say, and consider whether – on very real the scale of life and death – hearing from your candidate is any more important than a freshman getting his Chick-fil-A.  

Kyle Campbell is a junior majoring in political science. His 
column runs biweekly.