Every once in a while a moment arrives that a candidate, especially a presidential one, can use to define who he really is. These are not comfortable, scripted moments that the handlers have planned for weeks. They are spontaneous and totally unexpected, but you can become defined by whether you missed or made the moment work for you.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had one of those moments on Saturday, Aug. 8, in the middle of Downtown Seattle, when Black Lives Matter demonstrators grabbed the microphone for 4.5 minutes of silence for Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a year ago.
They totally disrupted the planned liberal love-in to the horror of many of Seattle’s most dedicated liberals and socialist thinkers. Sanders is a man who talks the talk about racial inclusion, liberty and freedom. He is a friend of the black movement, so why would they disrespect him like that? That was the question asked all day.
Sanders never spoke, and it became a rally for the issues surrounding Black Lives Matter as his motorcade sped away. It was also a moment when a lot of our liberal allies and friends sounded a weary tone of disgust for actions of these brazen, young people, because they had disrupted the party of a friend.
That is why I call this an important moment because these young activists know about Sanders’ past, but they don’t know where he is now. They don’t know or even care that the crowd was full of people who were supposed to be friends of the movement. All they knew is that young black men and women are dying all over America and white America does not seem to take it as seriously as we do.
This was also a call-out to Seattle’s liberal community, according to the activists, who have not lived up to the area’s representation as one of the most liberal cities in the nation.
Sanders should have taken that moment then, or later at the University of Washington, to claim solidarity with those young people and the movement they represent. Instead, we got caught up in the methodology and logic of the protestors than the power of the moment. He is in the middle of Martin Luther King County, and it was a chance to use the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. to capture the moment.
This is where he could have stolen a huge voting block from Hillary Clinton, who is still associated with the rich and the powerful. This is where he should have stood up and proclaimed that he, too, is Michael Brown and we all are until police abuse is stopped in America.
I have no doubt in the sincerity of Bernie Sanders because I do remember the young activists of decades past. Yet, I have also watched the white liberal community stumble time and time again when it comes to facing the radicalism of disenfranchised black youths.
They claim they want to help, but it must be on their terms and at a time of their choosing. They want to help, but the way we are going about things are so unpredictable that it makes them nervous so they need a clear plan to participate.
So we are constantly given a list of concerns to be addressed before our friends are comfortable to openly or even quietly help. They have handcuffed the movement to create that comfortable space for themselves, and with their resources and participation, it gradually becomes more their movement than ours.
This comfortable, nonviolent, non-threatening approach can force some gradual change, but it never really alters the nature of the society. Our liberal friends find themselves trying to help us improve our lives while trying to protect theirs at the same time. They live closer to the people being told to change than they do with us, and they feel their pain more so than they do ours.
These are their mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts we are talking about. These are the people they grew up with and shared their dreams with so they have seen the goodness in their heart — except when it comes to racial issues.
A lost opportunity
This is where Sanders could have made his mark on America and this presidential race. He knows it’s time to throw out the slow-change strategy and get serious about dismantling the rest of the Jim Crow system that has created this terrible economic equality.
The Black Lives Matter activists understood the moment and the place they were in, and they saw a large crowd of well-off, very-comfortable white Americans for whom they had a message.
Sanders should have listened and echoed their concerns. He could have altered the landscape of the 2016 presidential campaign. He could have become a spokesperson for a new America and the leader of the most radical transformation of America since the Revolutionary War.
Even though the campaign is not over, his political handlers will never let him be in this situation again, so it is an opportunity lost for Sanders and for America. He could have inducted an entire movement into his army; instead, he responded like all the candidates he claims he is not like.
CHARLIE JAMES is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute (mlkci.org). To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.