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Hillestad '15: Bernie Sanders, Ray Kelly and the virtue of disruption

When Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Bernie Sanders event in Arizona on July 18, I was annoyed. When it happened again three weeks later in Seattle, I was downright mad. Whatever you may think about Sanders, there’s no denying he has important things to say. He’s the only presidential candidate fighting for tuition-free public university, arguing for sweeping campaign finance reform and addressing the major economic divide in America with a concrete plan. It’s not surprising that he’s already attracting crowds of 25,000 or more.

But since he’s the only candidate who’s shown a modicum of racial sympathy, it was surprising when Black Lives Matter protesters shouted him down from the podium and seized control of the microphone not once, but twice.

The similarities between these incidents and the infamous Ray Kelly protests at Brown are striking. For those who don’t know, in 2013 former New York Police Department Commissioner Kelly visited campus to give a lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” a speech that was likely going to justify his controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

We never got to hear his speech. When Kelly started speaking, a few members of the audience stood up and started chanting. Every time Kelly opened his mouth, the protesters drowned him out. The rest of us waited patiently for the lecture to start. It never did. The protesters won, and we never got to hear what Ray Kelly had to say.

I was there and I’ve never been more ashamed of Brown. We’re supposed to be a liberal arts university, and a darn good one at that. It was supposed to be a place where free speech and the exchange of ideas were prized above all else.

So when Black Lives Matter activists refused to let Bernie Sanders speak, it brought back bad memories. Their complete disregard for Sanders, the event organizers and the crowd of 5,000 that had been waiting all day in the hot sun to hear what Sanders had to say didn’t sit well with me. I found their actions and the way they carried themselves to be rude and insulting. And most importantly, they took away from the intended message about protecting Social Security and Medicare.

The trouble is, I agreed with the Kelly protesters’ sentiment, just as I stand firmly in the Black Lives Matter camp. But my gut reaction was that the activists in both cases were tactless and far too aggressive. I sympathized with the crowd of people who went to hear a Sanders speech, only to have it hijacked by protesters. I’ve been there and it’s frustrating beyond words.

But then something happened that changed my mind. Bernie Sanders started talking about race. The day after the first disruption, Sanders addressed the death of Sandra Bland at a speech in Houston. And the very same day of the Seattle protest, Sanders released a draft platform for racial justice that addressed mass incarceration, racial profiling and the racial wealth gap. Then the Sanders campaign added a “Racial Justice” tab to his website. Just like that, race became a cornerstone of his campaign.

He still has a long way to go before becoming a bona fide racial crusader — after all, he’s still a 74-year-old white man from Vermont. But he’s well on his way to backing up his racial pedigree that includes marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and endorsing Jesse Jackson for president.

The Black Lives Matter protest reminded me, Bernie Sanders and the entire nation that change is rarely polite. The protesters had to resort to ugly means just to be heard. They knew they’d be condemned. But they did it anyway, and it worked.

That’s the difference between the Ray Kelly protests and the Bernie Sanders interruptions. They were both about racial justice and they both used basically the same approach. But the Black Lives Matter interruptions sought constructive political action, whereas the Kelly protest was self-destructive.

So why the radical difference? Simply put, the settings and circumstances could not have been more different. Ray Kelly was coming to a college campus to give a talk in a lecture series that emphasized dialogue and diverse viewpoints. Bernie Sanders was going to Seattle to convince people to vote for him.

Interrupting Bernie Sanders may not have been particularly nice, but it was entirely acceptable behavior for the campaign trail. Politics is a public forum. It’s not supposed to be cookie-cutter candidates and pretty news anchors spouting pre-packaged speeches at the electorate. It’s supposed to go both ways. Campaigns and elections are made so the people can be heard.

That’s the whole point. Black voices aren’t heard in American politics. They’re forced to resort to aggressive tactics like protests and disruptions. The Ray Kelly protesters were just trying to be heard. Unfortunately, their voice, while loud, was ineffective. Kelly couldn’t be swayed, and even if he could, he was retired. But Sanders was open to change.

And therein lies the virtue of disruption. Bernie Sanders might change his mind if somebody has the courage to speak up. So might Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush and every other candidate. Too often those voices come from lobbyists and big donors whispering in their ears. But every now and then, a small group of ordinary citizens in extraordinary circumstances stands up and demands to be heard.

And that’s how things start to change.

A day may come when Sam Hillestad ’15 — and maybe even Brown at large — will stop talking about Ray Kelly. But it is not this day.


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