By Da’Shaun Harrison originally published with Wear Your Voice Magazine
In October of 2015, I was one of nine Atlanta University Center (AUC) students to protest then-presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton. We were among the first to ever protest Clinton on her campaign trail, and were the largest group to ever do so, which shifted the national conversation around her relationship to Black voters and her complicity in the murders and incarceration of Black folks around the globe—both as a senator and as Secretary of State.
Everything we planned logistically was amended the moment we stepped foot in Clark Atlanta University’s gymnasium. Originally part of a VIP list, we hung backstage with various notable Black celebrities with the understanding that we would be able to sit down with Clinton before the rally. That sit down never happened. However, Clinton did take the time to greet and take pictures with every prop—whereby I mean every Black person she used in an effort to draw in votes she was already claiming—backstage with her.
We took a group photo with her—mostly as a joke, and as to not draw attention to the real reason we were in that space—told her to break a leg, and she went on stage. Moments later, we released our manifesto via email and across social media platforms, and then we protested. What the media reported as just ten minutes of an uproar felt like a lifetime.
In that gym, former President of Morehouse College, John Wilson, begged us to stop as “[Hillary] is our friend”; notable civil rights activists, John Lewis and Andrew Young, walked up to tightly grip and nudge me and one of my friends. Usher Raymond, world-famous popstar, joined in, along with many of Clinton’s campaign staff—many of whom were Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University graduates.
Hillary supporters—most of whom were white and liberal—shouted at us. “Let her speak! Let her speak!”, many of them chanted. Others chanted, “Hillary! Hillary!” One supporter even called us “niggers.” CAU’s police department dragged three of my friends out, and Secret Service threatened to body slam the rest of us. Just before we were physically removed, John Lewis went to stand behind Hillary Clinton as to show his unwavering support for her over us—something he later admitted to.
Just over four years later, I returned to that gymnasium yesterday for an Elizabeth Warren rally. This time—though still with VIP access—for work, not to protest. And just like with Hillary Clinton’s rally, the sit down with Warren did not happen. My friend and coworker sat together in the seating directly behind the stage the senator would give her speech on. Just before the rally started, Warren’s team began to pass out signs that read “Black Women for Warren” and “Black Voters for Warren”. I noted that I would not hold either sign because I am not voting for Warren and also because I am not a Black woman, to which a white woman directly in front of me turned around and said, “I’m also not a Black woman, but I’ll be holding it!”
This set the tone for the night. I didn’t get to witness this part of the previous rally, but what I did get to see while I was protesting was a ton of signs that read “HBCUs for Hillary” and “African-Americans for Hillary”. So I knew that I was in for a disastrous night. And I was correct.
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On stage, a group of students from CAU pumped the crowd up before singing a beautiful rendition of the first verse of the Negro National Anthem. Following that, they began to sing the standard/settler colonialist National Anthem. A group of no more than 30 people sat down or kneeled. Everyone else in the gym remained standing. Most of the people in the room were white liberal and Black progressive voters. Following that performance, the presider over CAU’s chapel program came to the stage to pray.
Already, I knew that the plan was to do what all white politicians seem to do at the rallies they hold at HBCUs: present us with things stereotypically assumed to be desired by all Black folks. While sitting there, as she prayed, I wondered: how many times does Warren open up other rallies with prayer? And how often is there a playlist of Black R&B and Hip-Hop prior to other rallies she hosts?
It all felt out of place, and like a gross minimization of who Black people are.
The event pushed forward with a moment of silence for Alexis Crawford, a CAU student who was strangled to death by her roommate’s boyfriend and continued with a speech about missing Black girls. Just after that, a Black woman from the community—who described herself as a “differently-abled caretaker”—came onto the stage to talk about domestic workers.
Both of these speeches were important to me. It is so important that we take space for the 40% of Black youths—made up mostly of Black girls—being sex trafficked per year in this country. It is also important that we acknowledge that over 60% of Black women are in the workforce, but remain underpaid in comparison to their working counterparts—all according to a report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Still, I wasn’t moved by these conversations happening at a rally for Warren. Especially in recent years, Black women have proven to be a powerful voting bloc that Democrats cannot ignore if they care to win an election. Warren knows this. So the commitment—either from her, her team, or the organization that coordinated the event—to place these Black women on a stage at her rally to give compelling speeches to a crowd full of eager supporters and young voters made this feel disingenuous. And considering the fact that Warren has no explicit plan as to how she intends to decriminalize sex work, the conversation around sex trafficking felt empty. I’ve been in and around the world of politics for far too long to not know when a candidate is pandering, or when they have a team committed to helping them pander. This was that.
Now on stage to introduce Warren to the crowd, Ayanna Pressley gave a speech that began with her discussing her mom and her commitment to teaching Ayanna about the power of voting during her childhood. She continued by talking directly to the audience, calling them “disruptors” and “activists” for their commitment to showing up to the voting polls. And then, just before introducing Warren, she said, “I came to tell you the good news. Look to the person beside you and say ‘good news!’” I grew up in the Black Church, so this was striking for me. “Gospel” translates seamlessly to “good news” in this context, and in any Black church on Easter Sunday, you’re almost guaranteed to hear that phrase—preceded by “look to your neighbor and tell them…”
What it all read as was an attempt to connect with a Black audience under the assumption that we all come from or are comfortable with a Black Church Tradition.
Warren finally took the stage and began telling us the story of a Black-women led strike in Atlanta in 1881. Just minutes into her speech, Warren was interrupted by school choice protesters. Initially, it was unclear what they were protesting, or even what they were chanting. So Warren spoke over them. However, the large group only grew louder, so she stopped speaking for a moment. Soon after, she was joined on stage by Pressley who started her response with “no one was trying to silence them, especially not ‘this Black woman’” and ended it with “…but when these women have been ignored this long, this is their moment and we are going to hear the story.” Noting also that “someone was finally listening.”
At the time, it was still unclear what the group was protesting. All that was clear was that there was a group of majority-Black protesters causing a disturbance during Warren’s speech, so Pressley’s comments didn’t yet feel justified. It was nice of her to affirm that they were welcome there, and that they would get a meeting with Warren following the rally, but this outright assumption that what was being protested was not important enough to disrupt a white woman telling a story about Black women to a somewhat-Black audience felt unfair and, in many ways, anti-Black. Worse yet, behind Warren, her campaign team was instructing those of us seated behind her to stand and yell with the signs in support of Warren as to drown out the protesters; this was in direct opposition of Pressley’s promise that no one was attempting to silence them.
Be that as it may, Warren’s speech continued. In it, she used language like “blacks” when not talking specifically about Black women; led with bombastic rhetoric around the plight of Black women workers being against the 1% when she, herself, is a self-proclaimed “capitalist to the bone”; and spoke of the painful ways Black people have had to survive as a source of inspiration. Like all other politicians, specifically Hillary Clinton, she gave what felt like empty promises to fund HBCUs with $50 billion and spoke endlessly on ending student loan debt. The issue with this is that, more often than not, HBCUs are forgotten about the moment a president takes office. Our schools are used as tools to draw Black voters in and, just like the rest of the Black community, are tossed aside when it’s time to follow through. Seeing as how Warren presented no clear plan for this yesterday, it is a more-than-fair assumption that she will only do the same.
This event felt like a rerun of the Clinton rally. It felt empty. While Black Womxn For, an organization led by Black women showing support for Warren, played a role in the events yesterday, it still felt like pandering. Which leads me to sit with this: perhaps there is no way to include Black folks in a presidential campaign without pandering, especially considering that they need us to win. What would it look like if we stopped trying to build political power through electoral politics altogether? What if we chose to not endorse someone who, regardless of how progressive their politic is or appears to be, will always be a war criminal for a country built on anti-Blackness? What if we demanded the power we know we already have instead of allowing politicians to use us as political pawns? And most importantly, when will we understand that accountability requires both consent and community, which one can never obtain from the leader of the most powerful empire in the world?
My endorsement has and will always be for Black people. We have the real power, and electoral politics will never shift that.