Why Are #BlackLivesMatter Activists Harassing Bernie Sanders?

In the age of identity politics, the fact that an elderly, white, straight 'privileged' male is the face of progressive U.S. politics is seen by some as additional proof that some lives don’t matter.

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Mara Jacqueline Willaford of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter after taking microphone from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Aug. 8, 2015
Mara Jacqueline Willaford of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter after taking microphone from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Aug. 8, 2015Credit: AP

Bernie Sanders, who is running to the left of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been unexpectedly successful in his efforts. His rumpled “Jewish Grandpa” look, white hair glasses, Brooklyn accent, and “tell it like it is” unabashed liberalism has had an appeal that no one anticipated. The man who was supposed to be a fringe candidate running unexpectedly strong with crowds showing up to “feel the Bern” and has stunned with the amount of money he has been able to pull together through small-donor.

One would think that the former Burlington Vermont mayor and socialist congressman and senator, with an impeccable progressive record that spans over 50 years seems like the last guy that angry social justice protesters would be targeting.

And yet, a pattern has formed - representatives from the organization “Black Lives Matter” have been disrupting his appearances and trolling his supporters on the Internet. Last July in Phoenix at the Netroots Nation progressive convention, protesters affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement invaded the stage where Sanders and fellow candidate Martin O’Malley were appearing and interrupted them, chanting the names of black women who had died in police custody.

Watch what happened when #BlackLivesMatter protesters interrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Seattle.Read full story: http://nbcnews.to/1MhYtPM

And then, last weekend Sanders was pushed aside once more after two women who identified themselves with Black Lives Matter took over the microphone at a rally in Seattle on health care and Social Security, just as Sanders was about to address several thousand people in a park. The women lectured him about racial justice and demanded to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. They pushed Sanders aside when he attempted to take the microphone back after 20 minutes, and disregarded chanting from the audience: “Let Bernie Speak!” which climaxed in an attack on the crowd “I have to get up here in front of a bunch of white racists to say that my life f-----g matters!”

Eventually, Sanders gave up, waving goodbye to the crowd and, giving a salute with a raised fist, mingled with the crowd, then left.

Somehow - it has become Sanders - not Clinton - and not the throngs of Republican candidates who they have chosen to disrupt. His supporters have produced videos illustrating why, in their view, the targeting of Sanders is utterly misplaced. They point out that Sanders has been part of the civil rights struggle for half a century, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to marching in Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. He has spoken out against police brutality and mass incarceration and, stating that just before his appearance in Seattle, tapped a young woman named Symone Sanders active in #BlackLivesMatter movement as his press secretary.

Black Lives Matter activist yells as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. August 8, 2015.Credit: AP

So why the attacks? Sanders, for all his progressive cred, say his critics “just doesn’t get it” in that he prioritizes economic equality over racial equality.

Analysts have analyzed the roots of the attacks on Sanders. Dara Lind has written in Vox that in Sander’s view “racial inequality is a symptom — but economic inequality is the disease. That's why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem. Many racial justice advocates don't see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms.”

In the Forward, JJ Goldberg posited that “economic inequality, the redistribution of income and wealth upward to the rich from everybody else since the 1970s — is essentially Sanders’ entire platform ...

What’s missing is the laundry list of gender and identity issues that have dominated Democratic and liberal politics since the late 1960s. Sanders is a reliable supporter of abortion rights, gay rights, affirmative action and immigration reform — and of Israel, for that matter — but they’re not what he’s about. His battle isn’t for self-esteem or enlightenment but for jobs and food, for survival.”

Many ask: if Sanders isn’t a good enough white progressive – why is Hillary Clinton not running into the same problems and being harassed in the same way? First of all, she’s just less accessible. She turned down the Netroots meeting. She has also been protected by her association with her husband, the former president and his close ties with the African-American community, so tight that he was jokingly referred to as the first black president. And because she is female, she is perceived to be more sensitive to gender and other identity issues. And she has made an effort to show, as one article put it, that when it comes to race, “she gets it, or is at least trying to.”

The perception seems to be that Sanders - and his supporters - aren’t trying hard enough. That is what is fueling the anger that led the women in Seattle to label the crowd - which, like much of the hard-core Sanders fan club, draws from the white, educated, middle-class base of the Democratic party – as racists.

But one wonders if the problem also lies not in what Sanders says, but who he is. In an age of identity politics, is the fact that an elderly, white, straight “privileged” male has evolved into the face of progressive politics in America seen as a slap in the face to minorities - another piece of evidence that their lives, faces, and stories, don’t matter?

One also can’t ignore the fact that the Democrat singled out for this treatment is Jewish. The Vermont senator was the child of a Holocaust survivor, and he spent a year on a kibbutz. The early civil rights activity that he is so proud is the part of vaunted African-American-Jewish solidarity. He is the only Jew to mount a serious bid for the White House other than Senator Joe Lieberman.

Bernie Sanders is not going to be president of the United States. He’s not even going to be the Democratic nominee, experts say, despite his strong prospects in early races like Iowa and New Hampshire.

But his campaign is vitally important to watch, nonetheless. He comes under fire from #BlackLivesMatter at a time when there is a great deal of focus on another prominent Jewish politician, Senator Charles Schumer, for his rejection of the Obama administration’s Iran deal and what it says about the position of American Jews and the pro-Israel lobby.

The two controversies, on such totally different issues, highlight the fact that we are in a delicate and difficult time for Jews in the Democratic party and on the American left. And since that is where the vast majority of Jewish donors, voters and lobbyists place themselves - how they play out will affect the future of Jews in American politics.

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