Combating institutionalized racism can’t wait

SEATTLE – Like many of us, I’ve been struggling to process the disruption of the Westlake rally on Saturday.

The celebration of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security birthdays was well-organized, beautiful, and inspiring. Social Security Works did a terrific job setting an agenda that included a majority of women and speakers of color – the music, the cake, the speeches, the mood of the crowd – all were perfect prior to the disruption. The protection and expansion of these programs is important to the lives of millions of people, present and future, and having Sen. Bernie Sanders as a headliner brought out the crowds, and could have served as an important vehicle for getting out the message to a national audience.

As it was, the rally did make national news; not because of the calls for expansion of the programs, but because protestors kept Sanders from taking the stage. I was frustrated and saddened by the outcome of the rally, but I believe it is incumbent on us as labor leaders to try to make some sense out of what happened, to learn from the experience and use it to continue to build a strong and united labor movement.

Saturday was also the day before the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Generations of activists have been calling out and demanding the eradication of institutionalized racism. But, at least since the 1980s, we’ve had long decades of American culture mostly ignoring and denying it. After too many lives diminished, after too many deaths – racism is, at last, being acknowledged, if not yet addressed. As the presidential candidate most committed to advancing a progressive agenda, Bernie Sanders has an obligation to address the issue and build a platform with policies that combat institutional racism.

I like Bernie Sanders, and I love that he is in this race. His economic analysis is spot on. His record of fighting for working people and for a better world is unmatched in the Senate. His record on civil rights is, for the most part, exemplary. Though I don’t make any endorsements until the national AFL-CIO does, I’m so excited that he is in this race and talking about the issues that truly impact working people. I was thrilled to welcome him to Seattle at Hec Ed Pavilion, and participate in the birthday celebration at Westlake.

But Sanders’ responses to Black Lives Matters (BLM) activists during this campaign have been inadequate. Certainly not as inadequate as most of the Republican candidates for president, and he is changing and addressing the issue more and more directly in the campaign. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I know how I feel when I’m confronted with sexism, how I feel when I hear men talking in ways that demean women, and how I feel when men who are allies fail to address sexism. Sanders’ failure to address racism head on in this campaign has been frustrating for me, as a white woman; how much more frustrating must it be for those whose lived experience is in a country, and city, where racism still permeates so many of our institutions.

Disrupting a public event is not a new strategy. Failing to have an exit strategy as a protestor is also, unfortunately, not all that unusual. I wish the protestors had left the stage after the minutes of silence when, I think, most of the crowd would have been with them. But they didn’t. Nor did Bernie Sanders pick up the open mic and address the crowd – I wish he had, but I understand that it may have made no difference to the protestors who were angry and unmoving.

In his speech that evening, Sanders did address institutionalized racism, and he is making the issue part of his platform. Arguably, the protestors’ tactics were alienating and, perhaps, counterproductive. But, I believe Sanders will use this, not to further polarize or dismiss BLM, because black lives DO matter, but to engage in the discussion, meet and talk with communities of color (including national leaders of BLM), and build his platform to incorporate policies to combat racism.

What I found most disturbing at the rally wasn’t that the young women disrupted the speech. It wasn’t that Bernie has failed to address racism, which I believe he will increasingly do. It was the reaction of the crowd, the vitriol and hatred that some – certainly not most – of the crowd showed toward the young, black women who were disruptive.

Disappointment, frustration, even anger was understandable – I felt all of those things, including sadness, myself. But that some members of the audience felt justified in hurling racist and sexist comments at the protestors, that our “culture of civility” and tolerance was so easily abandoned by some because young, black women took over the stage and didn’t let Sanders speak… to me, that said too much about the level of acceptance of racist and sexist language and action that we are willing to tolerate.

We have a moral imperative to deal with racism, just as we have a moral imperative to deal with oppression in all the ways it threatens the well being of workers. I’m proud that the WSLC convention delegates unanimously passed Resolution #12 that calls on the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO (WSLC) to “expressly take up (AFL-CIO) President Trumka’s call to have ‘a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do’ regarding race and the labor movement.”

A special committee will be appointed by WSLC President Jeff Johnson, to lead this conversation and take a number of other steps, including discussing institutionalized racism, racial equity training, the development of policy and legislative recommendations to address racism and racial inclusion into our legislative agenda; and to invite participation in the committee to the leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, the NAACP, and the Christian Leaders coalition.

This is critically important work that we do, and as our resolution notes, “…white labor leaders and rank and file members also be encouraged to stand publicly alongside their brothers and sisters of color because one disturbing aspect of the context of these earlier and recent racist killings is the profound silence of white America.”

These issues are not easy to address, and events like the disruption of the rally on Saturday are difficult to understand and to process. Yet, we must. We stand by our understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all, and the injury of racism demeans and inhibits us all. We are resolved to take clear action to combat racism, in our own house of labor, and in the broader community. It is so clear from the rally at Westlake that there is no time to waste.

Lynne Dodson is Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Reprinted from the STAND

 


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