Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Netroots Hecklers, Sanders, O'Malley and the Theater of Emotional Politics

Hecklers by definition want to disrupt someone's speech or presentation. They think that the presenter is missing some key points in his or her argument, is morally heinous, is focusing on incorrect topics, is wrong about everything and/or shouldn't even be allowed to speak in the first place. Now, I would never say that hecklers are always wrong but make no mistake heckling is a rude aggressive action. If you remember just a few weeks back an illegal immigrant transgender rights activist tried to heckle President Barack Obama at a White House event. After attempting to talk over this person and vainly appealing to a sense of decorum, the President had the person removed from the premises. Most of the President's political supporters were okay with this action. Some were openly amused by the President's forceful response. It's all about time and place. Interrupting someone is what heckling is all about. It's bad enough when someone heckles you. That's to be expected in politics. Politics is a contact sport with sharp elbows. If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen. But when someone tries to bogart an event that's something else indeed. There are some people or groups who can't get enough attention in their own right so they travel to other more popular events to hijack the narrative and reset the agenda to one of their own liking. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley found this out recently when at the Netroots Nation conference protesters chanting "Black lives matter" and "Say her name" heckled them, prevented them from speaking and briefly took over the stage.  But the protesters aren't doing themselves or their cause any favors by focusing on people who currently lack the power to initiate nationwide changes. More on this below. 

PHOENIX — A group of protesters repeatedly confronted Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland during a town hall discussion with liberal activists here on Saturday, demanding the Democratic presidential candidates address issues like discrimination and police brutality. Chanting, “What side are you on, my people, what side are you on?” and “Black lives matter,” the demonstrators moved to the front of the ballroom about 20 minutes into the event as Mr. O’Malley discussed proposed changes to Social Security. They remained there, heckling the candidates and posing questions, until organizers shut down the event, one of the centerpieces of the annual Netroots Nation conference.

If you recall, some people on the left, particularly on the more explicitly black nationalist left, have criticized and continue to criticize Barack Obama both as a candidate and as President, for not saying or doing more specifically about the systemic racist challenges that Black Americans face, particularly in the justice system. Until very recently the President's tepid responses were generally along the lines of "I'm not the President of Black America", "A rising tide lifts all boats" ,and "Pull your damn pants up and stop bothering me. I'm doing the best I can, and anyway these are generally local matters". Ok, I'm deliberately engaging in a bit of hyperbole for dramatic effect but not by all that much. The two most notable Black public figures who did have the temerity to question President Obama's program for black people, Professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, were generally ridiculed, shut down and dismissed by a great many black left intellectuals, politicians and most importantly voters. To be fair, in his second term and after the midterms President Obama has apparently felt more able to speak honestly and openly about his and the country's struggles around race and to seek some policy changes, some cosmetic, others truly revolutionary, around how race is experienced in this country. But that doesn't change the fact that for most of his term as President, black voters were "understanding", to put it mildly, that President Obama was not going to verbalize his inner Kwame Toure. That's not how the system works and probably not who he is anyway. So if people gave Obama a pass on that sort of stuff both as candidate and as President, why wouldn't they expect to give Martin O'Malley or Bernie Sanders a pass as well? It doesn't make any sense. Additionally, neither O'Malley nor Sanders currently has any sort of personal/legal authority over the state or federal prison system, any local police force, the US Department of Justice, the FBI, transfer of intelligence and military technology/weaponry to local police forces, or the ability to open and prosecute federal civil rights cases against local law enforcement officials.

You know who does have that sort of power and authority? President Obama and his Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. But I don't remember AG Lynch's confirmation hearings or press conference being interrupted by these protesters. In fact I seem to remember some of the very same people who are giving Sanders a suspicious look being ecstatic that the new AG was a black woman, without even bothering to look at her record or ask her some tough questions. Questioning Sanders' intentions because he represents a mostly white state shows that the person doing that is a demagogue who is ignorant of Sanders' past record and current political position and statements. This Netroots event was just an exercise in emotional theatrics. To close, the next President of the United States is going to be a white person. It is not going to be possible for people who muted their criticisms about social ills while Obama was President, to suddenly reinvent themselves as fearless social crusaders once there is a white President again. Life doesn't work that way. And if I were invited to speak anywhere I certainly wouldn't surrender the microphone to someone who's bumrushing the stage. You can ask questions during the Q&A or you can leave. If you want people to hear what you have to say get your own invitation or rent your own hall or have your own press conference. If O'Malley can't stand up to pushy protesters how can he sit in the Oval Office?
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