Recently, Bernie Sanders has been receiving attention for the unexpected rise in support he is gaining in his campaign. Many of his rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people, leaving many media sights wondering how someone like Sanders—who gets made fun of for his crazy hair, his loud boisterous rhetoric—could be attracting the attention of such enormous crowds.
I myself quite like Sanders; I value his values: those of compassion, of honesty, of equity; the importance of deconstructing big banks, of giving power back to the middle class, of reducing the US’s meddling hands in the Middle East. I see him as a breath of fresh air when I look at the people he is competing against: Trump with his inflammatory rhetoric and Clinton with her chameleon persona leaves me questioning her authenticity. It’s cliché, but I see Sanders as the only hope left for this country at this point, especially if he actually plans on implementing everything he speaks about with such gusto at his rallies.
In an article in The Guardian, titled “Millennials ‘heart’ Bernie Sanders: Why the Young and Hip are #FeelingtheBern,” several millennial liberals explain why they support Sanders. One person says, “Bernie Sanders uses socialism in the way it makes sense, which is just good, common, moral, ethical policy.” Another states, “I like that he’s the candidate that supports women and marginalized individuals. He’s the only one who’s really looking out for those groups.” I would
agree with both of these people.
But in light of recent incidents that have taken place at Sanders’s rallies, I have been reflecting on the ways in which the far liberal left he represents has historically alienated and isolated movements associated with the liberation of people of color, leaving me wondering if the liberal left is, in fact, as liberal as it claims. Here are two key incidents that have taken place thus far in his campaign for the presidency that I think are emblematic of this dynamic:
On August eighth of this year, Sanders had a rally in Seattle, at which two Black Lives Matter activists—Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford—interrupted Sanders. They were booed and yelled at by the audience, which was predominantly white, and Sanders himself was disappointed since he couldn’t speak at his own rally, saying, “I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.” Sanders has also said—not in relation to this particular event—that, “Latino lives” and “white lives” matter just as much as black lives. There’s a lot to deconstruct here.
First: the people who booed Johnson and Willaford, wanting them to get off of the stage for the benefit of Sander’s message. They see liberalism, class disparity, and criminal justice as issues that are more valuable than the lives of black people. What these people don’t understand is that liberalism, class disparity, and criminal justice are rooted in systemic racism. Black lives are systemically pushed into jails, into communities of lower income, into lives of immeasurable difficulty, as a result of the systems set in place. If Sander’s supporters truly stood for the values they claim to represent, they would understand that the BLM movement is ultimately working towards the same goals; they would understand that Willaford’s and Johnson’s message is theirs too.
But the problem is that liberal values have historically viewed issues of race as issues that operate in a vacuum: what happens within the black community is taking place, not because of deeply entrenched and structural systems, but because black people themselves do not know how to operate peacefully; black people themselves are the ones causing gang violence; black people themselves are inherently criminal and need to be controlled. In this light, the far liberal left is no different from the far conservative right.
Second: Sanders says that white lives and Latino lives matter just as much. Where do the words, “Black” and “lives” and “matter,” say that isn’t the case? Here is the answer: it does not. And it doesn’t say this because white lives and Latino lives do matter; it’s just that the institutions that serve as this nation’s foundation have historically targeted black people in particular. So supporting an end to this form of discrimination doesn’t mean one stands for the perpetuation of any other kind of discrimination. Pluralistic rhetoric silences the necessity of specificity in conversations of race. Specificity that is needed and cannot be ignored any more.
This is the first incident at a Sanders rally where the agenda of people of color and their activism is silenced. The second happening occurred more recently, on October third: pro-Palestine activists with a sign that said, “Will Ya #feeltheBern 4 Palestine?” were refused entrance to a Sanders rally in Boston. One of the student activists, Sana Hashmani, said in an interview, ““They told us to either put the sign away or leave.”
In this case, another social justice movement, one that fights for the rights of Palestinians, is also seen as a threat to the liberal left. While Sander’s campaign ultimately apologized to the activists, this incident shows how necessary conversations regarding global justice aren’t had at the expense of perpetuating the liberal left agenda, one that conflates the importance of Palestinian lives with anti-Semitism. The same way that BLM activists are seen as a threat to the current comfort levels of the liberal left, pro-Palestine rhetoric does the same. In both of these incidents, many who have labeled themselves as liberals, lovers of equity and socialism, have denied the voices of two severely marginalized groups. The question then arises: how truly liberal is the far right liberal?
Both incidents show how the far liberal left has a long way to go before it is actually as liberal as it claims. Supporting the BLM movement is a part of social justice. Sympathizing with the Palestinian plight is a part of social justice. Liberals need to stop conflating niche movements with necessary dialogue, the latter with out which no positive progress can be made.
by FATEMA ELBAKOURY