Black Lives Matter at Netroots Nation: Failing to Recognize the Power of Protest

Screen shot from Netroots Nation 2015’s live stream of the presidential forum

A number of people in attendance at the Netroots Nation presidential forum with Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders grew upset when black organizers took the stage and launched a protest. There were complaints about the organizers being disrespectful, obnoxious, and impolite.

It was supposedly not constructive. However, less than twenty-four hours later, O’Malley apologized for saying, “All Lives Matter,” and Sanders’ campaign sent messages in support of “Black Lives Matter.” This demonstrates that there are real advantages to protest, particularly at political gatherings like Netroots Nation.

However, a significant faction of Netroots Nation attendees, including some press in attendance, do not appear to recognize the value of this kind of protest in forcing change.

Tia Oso, a national coordinator for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in Phoenix, took the stage in the middle of O’Malley’s interview with undocumented activist Jose Antonio Vargas. She immediately contextualized the act of protest by acknowledging that Arizona was built on indigenous land and the border was drawn by white supremacists, who believed in “Manifest Destiny.”

She marked the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of an NYPD police officer, who put him in a chokehold and made him cry out, “I can’t breathe!”

The crowd of black organizers led a chant of, “Say Her Name!”, as Oso acknowledged Sandra Bland, a young black woman and anti-police brutality activist who was found dead in a jail cell in Texas. They shouted out names, like Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Kyam Livingston, Natasha McKenna, and Tarika Wilson, forcing the crowd to remember—and notice—their lives.

Oso stated, “We shouldn’t have to do this. We asked [Netroots Nation] to create space for black activists to connect. They said no so we did it ourselves.”

Following the acknowledgment of black women killed by police and prison guards, the organizers chanted “If I Die in Custody” and shared what they wanted the world to demand of authorities.

Patrise Cullors, who is with the Ella Baker Center and also a lead organizer of Black Lives Matter, declared, “Every single day folks are dying, not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. We are in a state of emergency.”

“And, if you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human,” Cullors added.

Cullors demanded that O’Malley and Sanders address the fight for black and brown lives. She pleaded with the candidates to speak out against police unions, who are “battering our names after their law enforcement” officers kill their people. She begged the candidates for action plans or concrete proposals for dealing with this crisis.

After the protest, the dominating news headline was that O’Malley had said something at a liberal conference that left-wing activists did not like. He said, “All Lives Matter,” and why should that be such a problem.

The disruption was cast as a sign of division in the Democratic Party. How are candidates going to deal with this? And, since Hillary Clinton declined to participate in the Netroots Nation presidential forum, does this show that she was smart to avoid this ruckus altogether? (more…)