Social Democrats USA attended Netroots Nation for the first time this year. The first Netroots Nation convention (then called the YearlyKos convention) was held in 2006. At the time SDUSA was going through a bad spell— still suffering from the death of our Executive Director, Penn Kemble. Netroots started as a convention of political bloggers (headed by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the DailyKos fame) who wanted to use the internNET to develop grassROOTS political organizations— hence the name change to Netroots. Yes, there were some big name speakers at the very first Netroots, including Howard Dean, Harry Reid, and Barbara Boxer, and since then the annual convention has become a “must attend” event for Democratic candidates. Thus it is interesting that Hillary did not show up this year. Elizabeth Warren was present, as was Martin O’Malley. But clearly the favorite of the crowd was Bernie Sanders. Almost everyone that I interacted with over the 3 days of Netroots was wearing a Bernie button.
As you saw in the press over the weekend, the big story was the interruption of the candidates forum on Saturday morning by the “Black Lives Matter” coalition. The less than stellar responses by O’Malley and Sanders were most reported. What wasn’t reported was that the protesters were protesting the Netroots organizers, not the candidates. They felt that that the issue of blacks being harassed and killed by police should be front and center, and that the mostly white Netroots organizers were unsympathetic to the crisis. Hence, when forum moderator Vargas was conducting his Q&A, the protesters assembled and took over. In fairness to O’Malley and Sanders, it was Vargas who was in charge of dealing with the situation. At one point, Sanders looked at Vargas and asked “what are we doing”? Most of us have been involved in protests at some point or another. The goal is to disrupt the normal flow of things, get attention for your cause, and perhaps make some demands. I think if you accomplish the first two and not the third, you have missed an opportunity. That’s what I saw Saturday. The protesters had the sympathy of the crowd, initially. They stopped the show. The leaders were invited to the stage. They spoke their piece. And they demanded responses from O’Malley and later Sanders. But here’s were it fell apart. As the candidates were responding to the protesters, the protesters continued their protest and didn’t allow the candidates to speak. Vargas was unable to control the situation.
Hence, O’Malley exited the stage after his “all lives matter” comment was not well received. Sanders ended up shouting over top of the protesters, which was also not well received. When Vargas said our time is up, Bernie responded, “good”. Amongst the audience there were mixed responses: some sympathetic to the protesters and some not. One man near me hollered, “sit down and shut up” at the protesters. I asked my colleague Patty what she thought. She recalled the protests of her youth during the sixties. “We disrupted a lot. But what was the result? We got Ronald Reagan for governor because he promised to crack down on agitators. Protesting has its limits. You have to get the politicians on your side if you want action.”
For me, that was the lesson of the day. Protesting is just venting anger and frustration if there is no follow-up. No matter how sympathetic we are to the anger, there will be no value to the protest if it can’t be turned into political action.