What Killer Mike Got Wrong About My Bernie Sanders Confrontation
Ever since Mara Willaford and I took over a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle last August, there has been an ongoing national conversation about that moment and what it means for the current Democratic primary race. Mara and I, part of the national Black Lives Matter organization at the time, confronted Senator Sanders before his speech to thousands at an event marking the 50th anniversary of Medicaid and demanded to speak on the mic. What ensued was a highly contentious battle for control of the event between Mara and myself, the event organizers, and Bernie’s campaign that resulted in my speaking at the podium for several minutes, and Senator Sanders leaving the event when we did not allow him to speak. The crowd was outraged, chanting Senator Sanders’ name during a moment of silence for Mike Brown and calling for the police to tase us while throwing water bottles at us on stage.
Once the dust settled on the initial outrage, our action sparked some conversations around what was at stake for Black people in this presidential election and if either of the democratic candidates could rise to the occasion. Within hours, Bernie Sanders announced that he’d hired national press secretary Symone Sanders, a Black woman; the very next day, he’d added “racial justice” to his platform. After that, it seemed Bernie spoke about Black Lives Matter and Sandra Bland at nearly every talk he gave. Hillary also responded, after being confronted by BLM shortly following the Sanders rally herself.
As people in the broader Black Lives Matter movement come head-to-head with candidates on the campaign trail, candidates have been forced to articulate why they are the best choice for the crucial voting block that is Black voters. In these discussions, many have chosen team #ImWithHer or #FeelTheBern and have shifted their interpretations of the candidates’ history, regardless of the context, to reflect their commitment to their “side.” Hillary supporters talk about her connections to Black politicians and her strong endorsement from the mothers of Black people killed by the police. Bernie fans argue that he is the obvious choice because of how his economic policies will positively affect Black people and because there is a picture of him participating in civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately though, Black people have not been sincerely catered to in this battle on the left, but have mostly been regarded as pawns in this election. As such, recent confrontations with presidential candidates have been reimagined as political talking points.
Which is what’s happened recently with Killer Mike.
Unofficial but consistent Bernie surrogate, the hip-hop artist turned activist gave a riveting speech in South Carolina on March 26 in the wake of his candidate losing across the south. Killer Mike argued that Bernie Sanders allowed me to speak at the rally in Seattle and that he’d listened to my concerns, which proved that he truly cared about Black people. He claimed that while Hillary was dismissive of BLM protestors, Bernie Sanders embraced them. Here is his statement:
This, of course, was not my experience. Mara and I were met with constant resistance as we fought to gain control of the mic. Nearly every man on stage put their hands on me. Even Senator Sanders himself chest-bumped me in an effort to get back to the podium. And after we made it clear that he would not be able to address the audience before apologizing for silencing Black women when confronted at Netroots earlier in July, he insisted that he was not going to apologize and he left the event.
I tried to reach out to Killer Mike multiple times via Twitter about this, and even noted that he was coming to Seattle in April and that I was willing to meet with him. Even after doing an interview with TW!B about it and their attempts to contact Killer Mike, I never received a response.
But last week, everything finally came to a head. After ignoring my multiple attempts to reach out and correct his narrative around my experience for almost a month, Killer Mike chose to finally respond to similar critiques in a Twitter conversation between two random men. One of these men tagged me in the thread, highlighting that Bernie was not a willing participant in our action and that it wasn’t evidence of his commitment to Black issues.
It was this exact moment that sent me over the edge and spurred on my day-long, Black-Twitter-famous drag of the Run The Jewels rapper. I’ve Storified it all for convenience.
There were many issues that came up in both this Twitter exchange and the larger context of Killer Mike’s re-telling of our action, so I made a list:
The Whitewashed Revisionist History
The heart of this issue is the exploitation of powerful actions within the Black Lives Matter movement as talking points in a white-centered Democratic Primary. BLM activists across the country have used disruption tactics in the presidential campaign to pressure candidates and launch national conversations. A recent phenomenon has been to frame these interactions with protesters as a litmus test for whether candidates are good for Black people. Though no Black protesters in these disruptions has ever endorsed a candidate, the results of the action and how the candidate handled it are considered “wins” and “losses” for candidates.
Highly controversial and unpopular at the time, our action with Bernie Sanders has very recently been re-told as a “win” for Sanders.
The problem with this re-framing is not only that it is demonstrably false, but that it removes Black agency in confronting and resisting, and instead gives credit to the powerful white politicians we were fighting against in the first place.
No, Bernie never gave us the mic. It was forced from him. No, he did not listen. He and his staff repeatedly tried to stop us both physically and verbally so that he could speak. When he knew he would not get that opportunity, he chose to leave, saying he was “disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands . . . I was especially disappointed because on criminal-justice reform and the need to fight racism, there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.” Clearly he did not embrace us.
So, Killer Mike’s revisionist history gives credit to Bernie Sanders for not behaving like Trump, rather than to the Black resistance that forced him to shift his entire campaign and the scope of the Democratic Primary. It completely erases the work of militant Black femmes that helped catapult BLM to the center of the presidential campaign.
Not only did Killer Mike’s revisionist history whitewash our work, but it re-imagined us as “girls” instead of women. Killer Mike repeatedly refers to myself, Mara Willaford, and Ashley Williams as “girls” while referring to the Black person Bernie Sanders chained himself to in the ’60s as a “woman.” This infantilization of grown women is common and often an unintentional slight in the communities I work in, so I was inclined to let it go.
But his decision to ignore me, yet talk to men about my experience, washed away all benefit of the doubt, thus unleashing the Twitter storm. When he finally did respond to me hours later, it was only after responding to other men all day. To top it all off, he ignored and blocked numerous other Black women critiquing him on Twitter while simultaneously engaging with even his male detractors.
Killer Mike’s refusal to believe women and their stories about their own lived experience is misogyny. His decision to only engage with other men around a critique brought to him by a Black woman is misogyny. His consistently referring to unapologetic Black women as “girls” is misogyny. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any exchange between myself, other Black women, and Killer Mike that wasn’t dictated by gender and mainstream misogyny.
When I finally went in on Killer Mike, I went all the way. I cursed. I was angry. I used strong imagery. I repeatedly called him a “bitch” and a “coon” (I still stand by those statements). I did not hold back.
This, of course, made people angry. Not the revisionist history, not the ignoring of a Black woman when she tells you of her lived experience, not the violence and harassment that I face every day as a highly visible and controversial woman. They were mad because I used words that made them uncomfortable. Killer Mike, who has a song about being glad Ronald Reagan is dead (which I like) and regularly refers to other rappers as “bitch” in his songs, claimed that he would not have discourse with me while I called him names. In a rare show of solidarity between hip-hop fans and Bernie stans, I was told that my calling him a “bitch” and a “coon” invalidated my entire argument. Like white people often do in the age of Black Lives Matter, many (including Killer Mike himself) insisted that they would have listened had I only been more polite.
But that simply is not true. It was over a month ago that I first spoke about this false narrative and tried very politely to contact and correct Killer Mike. And guess what? No one gave a shit. Because as much as people say they are offended, they love (and often times insist on) a good Twitter drag.
It seemed there were only two options for me: be respectful and polite and be ignored, or be rude and honest and make some attempt at resistance. Though I tried the former, it didn’t work for me. But when I went for the latter, I was tone-policed, shamed for my anger. I’m wondering if, in the future, I will have to skip the niceties, seeing as that is what is currently required to be heard above boisterous visible misogynoir.
And because this fiasco was not complete with just whitewashing, misogyny, and tone-policing, in the end Killer Mike resorted to gaslighting. Instead of responding to my concerns by listening or recanting or even asking earnest questions, he was dismissive and pretended that I attacked him out of nowhere. Instead of refuting my critiques, he insisted I was making him a villain without motive. Even worse, he claimed that my criticism of him and my work in confronting Sanders itself was born out of my own selfishness and desire to be seen. I do not think he knows that death threats do not come with commissions.
Not once did he acknowledge the harm he caused or validate my feelings on his exploitation of my work. Instead he was condescending, responding with “love you sis” all while continuing to be abusive. He positioned himself as the “reasonable negro” in juxtaposition with me for the white folks, not only shielding him, but inoculating Sanders against my criticism. And in those fell swoops, with his male privilege and his powerful platform, he sidestepped having to deal with me and ran toward the applause of eager, respectable white Bernie fans.
When you harm someone (intentionally or not), but act like someone is harming you when confronted, it’s gaslighting. Gaslighting is when an abuser tries to make you feel guilty for self-defense, or delusional for realizing your circumstance. Gaslighting is how powerful people, particularly powerful men, position you to look desperate and emotional until you finally tire out and stop resisting.
When you refuse to stop being abusive, but continue to say “it’s all love, peace,” it’s gaslighting. Gaslighting is saying, “I don’t know why she mad at me, guess she need a villain,” when I have detailed extensively and publicly how you continue to harm me.
Killer Mike continued to gaslight as he made numerous public statements via his verified celebrity Twitter account about his desire to talk with me and meet me in person, making it seem as though I had not made that offer to him a month before. It also gave him a space to continue being abusive in private, rather than on Twitter for the world to see. He got to look like the good guy extending an olive branch, and he would never have to publicly account for his behavior, instead claiming that we hashed it out privately. He even went to an event the next day and said publicly that he was going to meet me after the event.
Not only were his stated desires to meet me a way to dodge public accountability, they were also disingenuous; in the end, he never contacted me to meet. He knew I could not message him because of his account settings, yet he never messaged me even after numerous requests. What’s worse is he then started tweeting that he couldn’t message me because I didn’t follow him, though I had been receiving unsolicited messages from reporters about him all day.
But it didn’t matter. The truth didn’t matter, because he had the power and the privilege to shape the narrative around our exchange, just as he had with my Sanders confrontation. When he said he was a nice guy, people believed it. When he said he was oblivious, people ran with it. When he said we were going to meet, people considered the matter done. At every turn, Killer Mike was deemed the level-headed victor. This is how abusers continue. They never have to answer for their actions because we live a society that doesn’t require them to, especially if they are men with money and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers.
And this is how movements die.
Black women have been at the forefront and foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Major moments of civil disobedience and political disruption in the past year have been done by Black women, including Bree Newsome’s taking down of the flag, Tia Oso’s stand at Netroots, my action with Bernie Sanders, and Ashley William’s confrontation with Hillary Clinton. Not only do we need to support women and let them shape the narratives around their own work, it’s also crucial that we preserve the history of resistance, of which they are a part, for future generations.
But this can’t happen when we strip Black women of their agency and whitewash their stories. We can’t grow as a movement if we allow misogyny to dominate our actions under the scrutiny of the public eye. We won’t ever be able to move past the ways we participate in the oppression of others if we are too concerned with policing the tone of those who are never heard. And our collective movements will never survive in a context where abuse goes unchallenged and gaslighting masquerades as unity.
Until then, Black women will have to continue to fight to tell their stories in commitment to a life of resistance and perseverance . . . up a flagpole, on a national stage, and, surprisingly, on Twitter.
Lead image: flickr/Treefort Music Fest