Black Disruption Matters

by Vida Biggins

On Saturday, July18th, at the center of a stage at Netroots Nation meant to provide a platform for the voices of presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, stood a woman with dark brown skin, a kinky afro, wooden earrings, and the words “Black Love” boldly printed across her chest. She held the microphone—which I imagine could only have been pried from her hands—as protesters chanted slogans like “Black lives matter,” and “Say her name.”

The woman, Tia Oso of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, periodically shot a cool grin over to the antsy host of the event and then over to a slightly less anxious O’Malley, while assuring them that her people were almost done and O’Malley would be allowed to speak in just one minute. And she assured them that she needed just one more minute for at least fifteen minutes. In that moment, two men whose voices had been promised a cushy stage on which to land were preempted by an unapologetically black woman who had never before, and would likely never again, be afforded space on such a stage.

Naturally, reactions to the epic disruption have been mixed, but an overwhelming number of Internet commenters have voiced the opinion that the protesters did more harm than good. They condemn the protesters for potentially burning bridges with political allies because, generally, being so loud and unrelenting in the face of someone who cares about you is just plain rude. While they are right that it was rude and while it is also very likely true that neither O’Malley nor Sanders deserved to be interrupted or spoken over, those points are deserving of nothing more than an emphatic, “So what?”
What critics of the protesters seem to be overlooking is the context (and absence) of black voices within the frame of the American political narrative. They are overlooking how, historically, it has been nothing short of absolutely necessary for black voices to be both loud and unrelenting in order to be heard. While they are upset that Ms. Oso essentially ran the “okey doke” on O’Malley by quieting him until her people finished speaking, they miss the critical parallel that can easily be drawn between what she did on that stage and what prominent politicians have long been doing to shush black voices. Historically, black people have constantly been grinned at and assured "we’re up next in just a minute," only to find that our minute never arrives. Unless we seize the stage.

One of the most famous instances in recent history was in 2005 when rapper Kanye West appeared on a live broadcast to raise funds to benefit Hurricane Katrina survivors. His co-host, Mike Myers, shifts on his feet and nods nervously as West suddenly deviates from the teleprompter script to talk about the disparities between the media’s portrayal of black versus white survivors and the fact that the National Guard was given permission to shoot survivors (who were mostly black) if they crossed certain barriers in attempts to seek refuge. Myers’s mouth visibly drops open when ‘Ye concludes his stream of consciousness with the deadpan proclamation, “George Bush does not care about black people.” That moment of candor and rawness is one that most black people of recent generations will never forget. Because West said exactly what we were thinking.

What makes these candid instances satisfying is that the black voice, in its rawest most unrefined form, finally pushes its way onto the national stage and demands to be acknowledged. Conversely, when we politely ask to be heard, we are mostly (if not always) confined to strict parameters which dilute our true voice. Parameters that muzzle our anger in order to make our message more palatable for the masses. When we are willfully given space on the national political stage, our message is refined, filtered, edited, and fragmented until it only vaguely resembles our sincerest sentiments. So, how can we demand what we need when we’re not allowed to expose our truth?

When we deem it necessary to restrain our own voices, so as not to scare away those whose hearts are so anxious to bleed for us, we bleed instead. The unpleasant truth is that anyone who claims to understand racial injustice is constantly grappling with discomfort in several different contexts. If our allies truly mean to work toward the equity that we demand, it means understanding and accepting that we will inevitably encroach on the space that they inhabit.

And if our allies can’t willfully share their stage with us, then we should not condemn those who are courageous enough to seize the stage on our behalf.

Photo: Alaska Commons

Vida is a nerd, a womanist, and a philosophy student at Columbia University in the city of New York.

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