Does Seattle Have Trouble Talking About Race? | KUOW News and Information

Does Seattle Have Trouble Talking About Race?

Aug 10, 2015

How Seattle reacted to the disruption of Bernie Sanders’ appearance at a rally this weekend reveals the city is still unwilling to honestly talk about race, an NAACP leader said Monday.

Gerald Hankerson, president of Seattle-King County NAACP, told KUOW’s Todd Mundt that the incident shows that’s “a difficult conversation to have, even with your allies.”

“I appreciate the fact that race was being pushed to the forefront to create the discussion that most folks are afraid to have a conversation about, particularly here in Seattle,” Hankerson said. “Direct action is meant to disrupt and create the discomfort that makes folks talk about something that they’ve been afraid to talk about.”

On Saturday, two black women jumped onto the stage in Westlake Plaza as the Democratic presidential candidate prepared to speak at a rally marking the anniversary of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The women demanded to be heard, and after a brief negotiation, event organizers acquiesced.

Some in the audience weren’t happy at the disruption after waiting hours to hear Sanders.

“Get off the stage!” someone shouted. A chant went up: “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!”

But worse things also were shouted, according to Hankerson.

One of the two women, Seattle Black Lives Matter co-founder Marissa Johnson said: “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me. Thank you.”

Sanders left the stage, though he spoke to thousands later at the University of Washington.

This wasn’t Sanders’ first clash with Black Lives Matter protesters. At an event in Phoenix last month, protesters disrupted an event at which he and fellow candidate Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, were appearing.

The crowd’s reaction in Seattle didn’t set well with Hankerson.

“Some of the way these Seattleites reacted to these young ladies and this movement was horrifying to me,” Hankerson said.

“There were some horrific things being yelled at these young ladies, or these organizers, that I found to be troubling, but also indicative of Seattle, which proved their exact point.”

The debate churned on social media. Some people commenting on KUOW’s Facebook page supported the protesters’ goals but not their tactics.

“I feel like you can disagree with the tactics without being a racist, not supporting the movement, etc.,” Graham Taylor wrote. “It even appears there is dissent within the movement about tactics. As a white person, I want to step back and listen to these critical issues. I want the issue of racial justice to be a part of the dialog. However, can I not have compassion for BLM organizers and also have understanding for people who came to see a program and were denied?"

“I was in that crowd, a crowd who several times chanted ‘Black Lives Matter’ in earnest when roused to by previous speakers, including the regional (I believe) president of the NAACP,” Dan Williams wrote. “The crowd was mostly angry about not being able to hear Bernie Sanders speak after waiting in the hot sun for 3 hours. Direct action should be employed against politicians who are ignoring or not supporting a cause not against a politician who supports a movement but might not focus on it as much as you like.”

But other commenters said the city has an uncritical image of itself.

“From these comments and the language used, the annoyance at disruption over a cause that is a state of emergency for people of color, calling the protesters ignorant ... I'm seriously questioning if I'm still living in the same city that hosted the WTO protests in 1999,” Lauren Braden wrote.

“The idea that Seattle is not racist as a whole is flat wrong," wrote Allen B. "It's one of the more racist cities I've been in. It just keeps things polite and segregated so that it can appear not to be so.”

After the Seattle rally, Sanders’ campaign added a “Racial Justice” section on its website’s issues page. That section wasn’t listed on a page archived Saturday. But Sanders’ campaign downplayed any link to the Seattle event.

“The posting over the weekend was in the works before this weekend,” campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said in an email to KUOW on Monday. “It is almost entirely taken from a speech that the senator delivered last month to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Those remarks have been posted on the website since the speech.” 

Produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.