On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, Mara Jacqueline Willaford and two other members of Seattle’s Black Lives Matter chapter captured national media attention when they interrupted presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle and demanded the microphone.
After moments of arguing, Sanders eventually conceded the microphone to Marissa Johnson, Willaford’s colleague, who addressed his supporters over the boos and jeers launched back at them in return.
In an interview with the Post, Willaford explained that, “Actually one of the great things that came out of this action was that it did shine a spotlight on (Seattle) and on all the racism that is very rampant in our city.”
“We actually have a lot of the reforms that other cities are currently fighting for,” said Willaford, pointing to Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) and housing affordability policies—two issues that Oakland activists are currently fighting to improve.
“It hasn’t worked,” she said.
In the moments the activists were on stage, Johnson welcomed Sanders to Seattle, characterizing the city as a place riddled with police brutality, disparate school suspension rates for Black students and intense gentrification. The group ended the action with a four-and-a-half minute moment of silence in commemoration of Michael Brown.
As several in the crowd continued their disapproving chants throughout the remembrance, tears ran down Willaford’s face as she kept her eyes shut and a Black power fist raised in the air.
According to Willaford, Seattle’s Black population continues to face massive displacement from gentrification because “a lot of housing affordability efforts are pretty colorblind” while the changes to policing recommended by the CPC go un-entertained by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
While many subsequently questioned and criticized the actions of Black Lives Matter for targeting Sanders, who is widely considered the most progressive presidential candidate in the race, notable changes were made to Sanders’ campaign within days after the protest.
Willaford pointed out that not only are Sanders’ staffers now more active about meeting with Black activists across the country, the action actually played a role in pushing the candidate to alter his platform.
“(Sanders) adding the racial justice component to his platform is huge. The stance that he’s taking against the privatization of prisons is huge,” said Willaford, referring to the new additions that Sanders made to his campaign after the Seattle rally.
“All of that being said, for us it was never about Bernie Sanders,” she said. “I think the platform changes are positive, but I’m much more interested in the conversations that the nation is now having. I think those are much more significant than any one particular political candidate.”
The small Seattle action helped spark a national dialogue around respectability, electoral politics and race in the United States that greatly impacted the platforms and language of every candidate in the presidential race.
While their triumph has become clear after weeks of letting the media dust settle, the question remains about what made the chemistry between Marissa Johnson, Mara Willaford and Bernie Sanders such an effective recipe for igniting a national conversation.
“I think it really hit a nerve for the nation to see two young, extremely femme Black women take power away from and completely assert power and authority in a space that we’re really not even supposed to be in,” said Willaford.
She cited the responses that the action received from Republican presidential candidates, who were “very fixated on the masculinity of Bernie Sanders and what we did to his masculinity” as a result of interrupting his speech.
According to Willaford, by organizing at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement and asserting their power, Black women are destabilizing the country’s traditional power structure and forcing the nation to question its own framework.
This threatened power structure was caught on camera, for example, when the nation witnessed a Waller County police officer—a white man—violently arrest Sandra Bland—a Black woman—after she refused his order to put out her cigarette.
“The phrase ‘All of us or none of us’ is so powerful because it speaks to the reality of this movement,” said Willaford. “And the reality is that Black women, Black trans folks and especially Black trans women are on the front lines, and they’re holding it down.”
When asked why Black Lives Matter seemed focused on Sanders, Willaford explained, “Bernie Sanders, at the time that we did this action, made much more sense than Hillary Clinton because he’s her quote-unquote radical opponent.”
“He’s to the left of (Clinton). So if he’s refusing to talk about race and if he’s cancelling meetings with Black Lives Matter activists, then I don’t think she would have had any need to respond,” she said.
Meanwhile, Willaford believes targeting Republican presidential candidates would have the opposite effect of what Black Lives Matter wants, potentially invigorating the Republican voter base.
She likened focusing on Republican candidates such as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush to the recent battle to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol.
“People like to fixate on the Confederate flag the same way people like to fixate on the Republicans,” she said. “I think we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice by fixating on obvious symbols of white supremacy to the exclusion of everything else about this country.”
Rather than directly challenge that which is furthest from its shared ideologies, Black Lives Matter seems to prefer questioning the status quo of what is generally considered progressive in order to force people to reassess their political perceptions.
Last week, for example, members of Black Lives Matter’s Cleveland chapter disrupted a Hillary Clinton campaign event demanding her to “divest from private prisons, invest in black trans women.”
In a statement released on Wednesday, the organization stated the reason they targeted the candidate with this demand was, “Since Hillary Clinton makes equality for women a critical tenet of her campaign, we demand that Clinton—and our movement for Black lives—center the Black transgender women so often left out of conversations about gender and racial equality.”
As previously mentioned, however, while impacting platforms has been positive for the Black Lives Matter movement, it is the outcome of these conversations that Willaford and many others are more interested in advancing.
“The question that I’d like folks to ask themselves is do we, as Black people, need Bernie Sanders or any other candidate,” said Willaford. She explained that she supports “Black self-determination and Black folks working to change the system whether it is in a reformist or revolutionary way.”
“In our country we’re very fixated on electoral politics,” she said. “We’re so colonized in the way we think that it’s very hard for people to think outside the box and to really envision a different world beyond just voting.”
“I think unknowns really scare people,” said Willaford. “And there’s a lot of unknowns in getting free.”