In this essay Nathan Palmer uses the recent Black Lives Matter protest at a Bernie Sanders campaign event to discuss how movements choose the tactics they will use to achieve their goals.
On August 9th two women rushed the stage at a campaign event for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and demanded they be allowed to speak. The two women, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford who are affiliated with the Seattle Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, shouted, “Let her speak!” repeatedly while they struggled with event organizers for control of the microphone. Eventually they were allowed to speak and Johnson addressed the crowd through a chorus of boos and shouting.
After waiting about 20 minutes Sanders tried unsuccessfully to take back the microphone. He then waved goodbye, put his fist in the air, and walked through the crowd as he left the event. Later that day Sanders issued a statement online which read in part, “I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare. 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.”
“Well That Was Rude!”
Almost immediately the internet exploded with reactions to the disruption. Some championed Johnson and Willaford for “shutting down” the Sanders rally. Some chastised them for acting inappropriately. Others were perplexed at their choice of target. Bernie Sanders is arguably the most progressive presidential candidate running and as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan put it you, “Don’t Piss On Your Best Friend.”
If you’ve attended a BLM event or if you’ve been paying the movement even the slightest bit of attention, then I have no idea why you would be surprised by Johnson and Willaford’s actions. “No justice, no peace!” is a common chant at BLM rallies and marches. Furthermore, “shut it down!” is both a common battle cry within the BLM movement and a frequently used tactic. BLM protestors have disrupted and ultimately shut down many events at the local and national level. Simply put, “Black Lives Matter is a demand, not a plea.”
Yes, what Johnson and Willaford did was disruptive and it broke social norms, but that was the point. That’s the “no peace” part of a protest.
Social Activism from Conflict to Consensus
Broadly speaking, social movements can use consensus and conflict to motivate their targets to give them what they want. Examples of consensus or non-confrontation tactics include boycotts, letter-writhing campaigns, petitions, press conferences, and internet activism. Confrontational tactics often involve breaking social norms and/or the law. Furthermore, confrontational tactics can be either non-violent (e.g. protests, sit-ins, marches, strikes, blockades) or violent (e.g. assassinations or bombings).
What Johnson and Willaford did was protest. Protests, “or the collective use of unconventional methods of political participation to try to persuade or coerce authorities to support a challenging group’s aims” are one of the most commonly used conflict tactics (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004:263). Johnson and Willaford used their bodies and their voices to disrupt the Sanders event and force the attendees and the people watching online to hear their grievances.
“Let Her Speak!”
Social movements decide which tactics to used based on the resources they have and whether or not their members have access to the conventional channels of political change. When a movement has ample resources and the ear of lawmakers, they often choose to use non-confrontational tactics. This is why non-confrontational tactics are often called “insider tactics.” On the other hand when a movement feels they do not have a voice in society or a place at the table with lawmakers, they are more likely to use unconventional means or “outsider tactics” to achieve their goals (McAdam and Snow 1997).
From this vantage point, Johnson and Willaford’s choice to disrupt the Sanders event makes sense. In her speech, Ms. Johnson indicated how hard it is for her voice to be heard. She said, “We’re going to honor the memory of Michael Brown. And we’re going to honor all of the black lives lost this year. And were going to honor the fact that I have to fight through all these people to say my life matters!” The very phrase Black Lives Matter is used by activists to draw attention to the fact that the government, the media, and society in general does not pay adequate attention to the systematic inequalities and abuses that African Americans endure everyday.
In The End…
In the end, it appears that Johnson and Willaford’s protest was affective in at least a few ways. First, by choosing Sanders, a candidate who on the face of it appears to be more in line with the BLM movement’s concerns than every other candidate, Johnson and Willaford created an unexpected scene. Research on past social movements suggests that when the tactics used are novel or innovative like this, caught-off-guard politicians are forced to “go off script” and the media is more likely to pay attention (McAdam 1983). Second, the day after Sanders was shut down, the list of policy priorities on his website were updated to include racial justice.
- What was your initial reaction to watching Johnson and Willaford’s protest? Did reading this article change your perspective on it in anyway? Explain your answer.
- Pick a social movement (other than BLM). What tactics have been used by this movement to achieve it’s goals? You may need to do a little research on Google to answer this question.
- Thinking of the movement you chose for question two, would you say their tactics tend to be more non-confrontational or confrontational? Explain your answer.
- Now imagine that you are a member of the social movement you selected for question two. Describe a novel or unexpected tactic the group could use to achieve it’s goals. Note that if you disagree with the movement and wouldn’t ever join it, that’s okay. This is just a hypothetical exercise.
- McAdam, Doug and David A. Snow. 1997. Social Movements: Readings on Their Emergence, Mobilization, and Dynamics. Los Angeles, Calif: Roxbury Publishing Company.
- McAdam, Doug. 1983. “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.” American Sociological Review 735–54.
- Taylor, Verta and Nella Van Dyke. 2004. “‘Get Up, Stand Up’: Tactical Repertoires of Social Movements.” The Blackwell Companion To Social Movements 262–93.