‘We on the Freedom Side’: Why I Stood Up for Black Lives at Netroots Nation

Doing social change work is scary and will make you uncomfortable; it will change you, for better or for worse. But that’s part of what showing up and taking a stand means. And what choice do we have?

Taken at a Stop Mass Incarceration Network rally in New York City early spring." a katz / Shutterstock.com

“What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

Since last week’s action at Netroots Nation, in which Black Lives Matter activists seized control of the Town Hall at the biggest progressive convention in the country, I’ve had the voices of my Black sisters singing those words during the protest in my head.

Knees buckling, I marched down one of the aisles in the event space at Phoenix Convention Center behind #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Patrisse Cullors; GetEQUAL’s Elle Hearns and Angela Peoples; Ashley Yates; Amber Phillips and Gloria Malone of Echoing Ida; and Monica Simpson of SisterSong; among many other amazing leaders. Not long after the interview with Gov. Martin O’Malley began, roughly 50 of us walked from the back of the space to the front, where we demanded that Netroots and the two presidential candidates attending the conference hear us and questions posed directly by Cullors about their plans to address structural racism and the police state in this country. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, even though I was completely unsure of myself. To get to that moment, I had to set aside my priorities as an editor and a reporter covering the event, and I had to actively reject the impulse bestowed on me to be “respectable,” which many wrongly assume will keep us from being killed by the police. I had to just be who I was: a Black woman who needed to express her frustration and impatience at the “progress” so-called progressives are seeking.

What I realized in that moment, something I’ve felt for years but only then could put into words, is that doing social change work is scary and will make you uncomfortable; it will change you, for better or for worse. But that’s part of what showing up and taking a stand means. And what choice do we have? I have 12 nieces and nephews, and I hope that one day they’ll also take a stand for what they believe in, because if they don’t, who will? I have some faith that other liberals will continue taking steps to fight for racial justice, but given what I saw this past weekend, Black people, Black women in particular, will have no choice but to lead the way.

The action was a response to both Netroots organizers and the presidential candidates—all of them, not just the ones who were onstage—who have pushed the Black Lives Matter movement’s agenda to the sidelines until it’s convenient for them. For example, Netroots is a conference that, according to some convention veterans I spoke with at the event, is at its core about grassroots and online organizing. Why, then, at a time when the country is largely focused on issues of police violence and hate-based crime, wasn’t one of the largest grassroots and online movements in 2015 more clearly represented? There were panels in which Black Lives Matter organizers took part, but if you aren’t someone who sought out panels comprised mainly of Black women, like I did, you could have easily missed the opportunity to engage directly in these conversations.

Further, many of the panels I went to were sparsely attended; each of the keynotes, however, were back-to-the-wall full. Why not have Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, or Opal Tometi, the three #BlackLiveMatters co-founders, interview the candidates? Oh wait, we’ll get to the Black Lives Matter movement at next year’s conference in St. Louis. But the movement is not a side issue. It’s a “now” issue. I understand this year’s conference was heavily centered around immigration, with a number of attendees from the Arizona immigration and Native rights communities. But we can focus on more than one issue at a time. Black Lives Matter is about basic human rights, after all. Which is why the lack of deep analysis around these issues at the conference was frustrating, and why an action directed at the organization, at politicians seeking higher office, and at progressives too, was absolutely necessary.

That analysis begins with acknowledging the current crisis. So there’s one thing we all can do today that could change the course of history: Learn the names of victims of police violence. All of them. Here are just a few to get you started:

India Clarke
Sandra Bland
Kindra Chapman
Kimberlee Randale-King
Caroline Small

And once you learn their names, you might find yourself asking a lot of questions—among them, “What the fuck?” Yeah, exactly: We are in a state of emergency worth shouting about.

As a precursor to the action, activists posted to Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody what we would want people to know if we were to die in police custody. The thing is, no one should have to think about this. But that’s what some of us were doing on Friday night while other Netroots participants were attending one of many parties and talking about whatever it is people talk about when they’re not constantly reminded about how little society values them and everyone they love. This is what people are describing when they mention privilege: the ability to live without those traumas. Progressives at the conference who thought the action went on too long or got upset when activists refused to center their feelings in the conversation missed the point.

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve had the opportunity in a public, progressive space to be unapologetically Black. #BlackLivesMatter activists have spent the past two years, if not longer, thinking about justice, saying the victims’ names, and doing the work to explain to others that our lives do matter.

And yet, when progressives at the event had an opportunity to be part of the solution, they complained. As my colleague, Imani Gandy, has pointed out, “I’ve seen some white folks complaining that they no longer feel safe at Netroots because—you know—unruly Black women. The horror! Still others don’t think the protest ‘looks good.’ (Because as we all know, change comes when you politely ask for it, not when you disrupt and demand it, which, by the way, is what Dr. King did. White people tend to forget that Dr. King was a disruptor when they are using him as a Pokémon to shut Black people up.)”

Progressives at Netroots, including the organizers, should have been thanking activists and asking them what they needed instead of criticizing them because they had to spend a few moments of their lives feeling a tiny portion of the marginalization Black and brown people feel every minute of every day.

This issue, of course, was and is not limited to the Town Hall event. After four days of conferencing at the convention for left-leaning organizers, it’s still not clear how progressives will help to end systemic racism, oppression, and state-sanctioned violence. It’s still not clear what the progressive agenda is regarding Black lives.

That’s a problem for Netroots, a problem for progressives, and a problem for the people seeking higher office to address explicitly in each stump speech made if they want to earn the Black vote.

As Lizz Brown noted during the #AskASista panel, we need to look at candidates and see that they are articulating, prioritizing, and delivering on issues affecting Black communities. And so far, as Black Lives Matter organizers noted in a statement after the action, they are failing to do so:

In response to our protest, both Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley have released the strongest statements yet on the value of Black lives. But, we have yet to see a candidate bold enough to lead with race and make Black lives a policy priority. Until there is evidence that Black lives matter, there can be no business as usual.

What could that evidence look like? For starters, how about making Black women organizers the fulcrum of the movement? As Tia Oso, a Phoenix native and Black Lives Matter organizer who was handed a microphone by a Netroots official at the start of the protest, explained in a piece for Mic: “Black leadership must be foregrounded and central to progressive strategies if we are to achieve a multi-racial democracy with social and economic justice for all people.”

Like other conference-goers, I was happy to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren say “Black lives matter” during her keynote address at the conference. But although there is value in speaking those words, they alone aren’t enough. The phrase requires action or it’s meaningless. By putting Black women, who sit at the intersections of gender and race and who have for decades experienced the trauma that many in our society are only just now seeing, at the center of liberal agendas, progressives can lift up others as well, including those whose people are dying in detention centers and by other systemic factors. As Patrisse Cullors explained to Jamil Smith, senior editor at the New Republic, “[H]earing elected officials say [Black lives matter] means that we won a particular victory around the battle of ideas, right? But that’s actually not matched with these practices, it’s not matched with new policies, if it’s not matched with the people’s agenda, then what’s it worth?”

But supporting Black leadership is just one aspect of the needed change. I’m definitely not the first person to say this, and I probably won’t be the last: Learn your history. When and if you do, you’ll find behavioral patterns at systemic levels that have stifled generations of people in our society. Consider what you might be doing to perpetuate these cycles of inequity (with the caveat that your silence, unless you’re actively listening to others with less privilege, can also be a factor). How about doing something about that?

And to my beautiful Black sisters: We will continue celebrating our victories as we struggle to find peace within this chaos. I continue to be inspired by your heartfelt actions, life-giving writings, and real authenticity. Thank you for all that you have done and what we will continue to do together in the service of all Black lives.