Bernie Sanders came under fire this weekend for his response to a group of protesters who identified themselves with Black Lives Matter. I'm taking them at their word on this, though known BLM activists are voicing significant skepticism, and though Dave Weigel's discovery of "handlers" feeding them talking points is suspicious. Here, the point is irrelevant, because I'd just like to compare: how should we expect public figures to respond to protesters in general, and the BLM protest of Sandra Bland's death in particular?
During the Netroots protest, the BLM protesters chanted "say her name" -- a reference to Sandra Bland, and a demand with double significance. First, it was a demand that Sanders advance an agenda that acknowledges and fights the problem of police brutality. Second, it was a demand for immediate deference from Sanders, as a gesture recognizing his privilege and the moral authority of the BLM movement.
Sanders has clearly met their first demand: there remains some (mostly misguided and cynical) debate over his approach to police brutality, but that is not the same as questioning its priority or his commitment. Still, he clearly failed on the second point: it wouldn't have significantly derailed his speech to say a word or two on Bland. Since then, however, he has met that demand. So now, how do we weigh Sanders' history of advocacy and accomplishment, as well as his subsequent deference to BLM, against his failure on Saturday?
WHITE MEDIA CRITICS
As long as we're looking at privileged white people who command national platforms and refused to use them to acknowledge the Sandra Bland protests, consider some of Sanders' loudest critics: David Dayen, Zack Ford, Joan Walsh, Elias Isquith, and Emily Crockett.
It's a bit much to call this extended record a "gotcha" while crowing about a single on-the-spot reaction by Sanders. All of these people have the backing and promotion of major institutional sponsors, prestigious white collar jobs, and considerable incentive to advance Bland's cause in their role as liberal columnists and journalists. These are precisely the people who *must* take an active role in the specific, day-to-day exposure of cases like Bland's, but none of them did.
And it's also a bit much to pretend there's no common thread in the sudden, simultaneous interest these people have taken in Bland. For too many white journalists and public figures, she simply wasn't worth talking about until her memory could be weaponized against Sanders. Except for Walsh, I don't think this has actually been an act of calculated cynicism; but political co-option has always been a considerable obstacle for progressive movements, and white progressive media needs to check its motives and actively guard against complicity in that problem.
On that note, the obvious subtext of much of the criticism against Sanders is that he's not worthy of the Democratic nomination. But this claim's only meaningful if set in contrast to the alternatives.
Hillary Clinton was conveniently absent from this weekend's events, but it's not like we don't have an extensive record of how she handles protesters - see below. In general, there is not a case to be made against Sanders that isn't infinitely more damning for Clinton. Her preferred method of handling protesters is simply to throw them out, usually with some degree of violence. She's also fond of patronizing them and even insulting them once they've been handled, even to the point of making some pretty reprehensible ableist jokes. She also typically either talks over them or prompts her audience to drown them out. She does this to everyone: minorities, climate change protesters, and critics of her ties with Wall Street. Are we seriously pretending she would have handled this any better?