1 Year Later: BLM Protester Who Interrupted Bernie Sanders’ Rally Discusses the Moment and the Movement

Marissa Jenae Johnson
Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford interrupt Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle on Aug. 8, 2015.
Getty Images

It’s been a year since Mara Willaford and I jumped up onstage with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in what would become one of the most controversial Black Lives Matter actions to date. Filled with naivete about the impact we would make and conviction around the urgency of the fight for black lives, we did the unthinkable when we took over a rally for one of the most progressive candidates in the race and demanded that he, among others, be accountable to black people. Now, a year later and just a few short months before the conclusion of one of the most disappointing presidential elections in recent history, the crisis of anti-blackness in America remains the same.

Pretty much everything that could be said about this election has already been said. We are all well aware of our choices—that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are our nominees and that the election of either has grave consequence for black and brown people both domestically and abroad. More than anything in this election, there has been a level of forced transparency. There are no perfect Democrat messiahs like Barack Obama, and no right-wing establishment figures for the GOP—only two undesirable choices and a heavy awareness of the lack of agency most Americans feel in the political process, both in the candidates they have available and their ability to champion a politician they truly believe in.

Though our brave and highly unrespectable critique of Sanders helped shift the narrative around Sanders and the Democratic Party, resulting in the release of criminal-justice-reform platforms and continued conversation around Black Lives Matter, looking back, I think our greatest impact had nothing to do with the realities of the presidential election at all and everything to do with the powerful black resistance that is making itself known more and more in America.

In the first few hours and days after our hostile takeover, there was bipartisan disdain for the action we took. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, alike quickly condemned the action and wrote us off as foolish and uninformed girls. For nearly a week, there was little substantial political commentary around our action, with major news outlets describing it as simply “rude.”

Beyond the stated assumptions that we took reckless action without intending the consequences were the attacks on our personal lives. In an effort to derail our message, white people (particularly white men) from all walks of life took to doxxing both me and Mara. They sent me hundreds upon hundreds of death and rape threats alone that first week, while photos from my personal Facebook page were used to accuse me of being an agent for Sarah Palin. Even my religious faith was dissected and ridiculed by those who were looking for any way to discredit us.

I’ll never forget the group of men who chased me down the street calling me a “bitch” when they recognized me days after, or the fact that someone tweeted out my parents’ address, or the dozens of Reddit pages where, after declaring how fat I am, multiple men detailed how they would assault and rape me if they could. These threats and accusations knew no political party as people who threatened me online and in person ranged from the most ardent Sanders fan to the conservative pundits who said my parents should disown me.


I’ll be honest and say that I was not prepared for this backlash. Though our action ended up being a great reveal of the racism in progressive spaces, I myself was unaware of the depths of this underlying white supremacy. I did not expect to have water bottles thrown at me by “socialists”—nor for progressives to call for my being tased by a police department that is still under federal consent decree.

Though I knew we would not be welcomed, I could not imagine a world where Democrats felt so secure in the black vote that they would scream at me during a moment of silence for Mike Brown. I guess I also thought that Sanders’ campaign people would be smarter on their feet to leverage that political moment. It would have been quite easy for both Sanders and his fans to pretend to support us, to turn it into a progressive photo op. But instead liberals fought us tooth and nail for attention, and it is that fight that was the ultimate achievement of our shutdown of Sanders that day.


That fight revealed what is true about race in America: that we are embroiled in the white supremacy of our past and in many ways unwilling to address the crisis we now find ourselves in. By bringing to the public our attempt at resistance against the seemingly progressive forces that oppress us, we called the entire system into question. By going after the left, we moved the needle on what was considered racist, helped raise the stakes around what it means to believe in justice.

But if our work were just a critique of liberals, then surely conservatives would have come to our aid. Instead, people from across the political spectrum allied against us in their disapproval. Conversations around our shutdown boiled over from political and progressive spaces and became a point of conversation in grocery stores, in salons, in places as far away as Ghana and as near to home as your neighbor. If this was not a typical fight between two polarized political parties, then what was the central point of the controversy in disrupting Sanders?


The answer: Black women fighting for their freedom will always garner a visceral response.

I don’t believe it is true that this controversy arose primarily out of people’s love for Sanders and confusion around BLM. No, I believe that what struck to the core in a way I could have never imagined was the images that people saw on their phones, their iPads and their TVs. Seeing two young black women with long ghetto braids, big earrings and a total disregard for the authority of the state and the power of white supremacy over their lives is what shook this nation to its core.


The issue that united white people in their fear and anger around our action wasn’t their love for Bernie Sanders or their dedication to civility; instead it was the visual image of two people, young black women, jumping up out of the caste system American society has placed them in and running up to challenge a powerful white man.

It is the same image that has caused so many to condemn Korryn Gaines, who was so direct in her fight against the white supremacist state that even now, many rush to call her crazy. It is the same reason that Beyoncé’s “Formation” video took over national news cycles for nearly a week, with think piece after think piece proclaiming how she had gone too far. It is the same reason that a police officer saw fit to slam a teenage girl down on the ground in her classroom, or sit on top of a teenage girl wearing nothing more than a swimsuit. It is the same reason that many talk about Harriet Tubman but don't want to talk about her belief and practice of armed resistance.


Black women rising, with ample conviction and without fear, is a type of resistance that undoes the very fabric of American society. It defies the logic of every system in America that was designed to restrain and suppress black, poor and female bodies. Black women rising strikes fear into America because we are the foundation on which she built her empire. There is no doubt that we have endured enough deserving of angry resistance in response. Such resistance is a direct condemnation of the status quo and, as such, questions the legitimacy of all the systems of power that white supremacy dictates must remain in place or risk we dangerous societal dysfunction.

It’s been a year since our action and two since many black women, including Mike Brown's mother, stood up with a vengeance to fight for justice for him. As it was a year ago, two years ago, 10 years ago, a century and forevermore, black women, having little to lose, will continue to rise up without inhibition. We will continue to fight for the ones we love and for ourselves. We will continue to call out what is true but that no one dares name. We will continue to try to save the world from itself, even as you call us crazy, unruly and beastly. We will continue to speak with such clarity about the abuses that society has laid upon us, even as the world tells us we are too loud.


I don’t know who will win this presidential election, and quite frankly I do not care. The next president of the United States will not save me. In large part what is being decided is whether I will have a boot or a high heel on my neck come this time next year.

But the great lesson of our time with Sanders was not in affecting the presidential race, though it did just that. The great lesson that continues on is the upending of the structures of domination that larger society continues to accept. When two young black women defied a powerful white man for all the world to see, we joined in the chorus of black women, both past and present, who mark the possibilities of resistance for all oppressed people.


So as we continue to honor Korryn Gaines and as we remember Mike Brown on the anniversary of his death, let us come face-to-face with our only salvation. Black women have forever been and shall be the torchbearers of brave resistance against all odds. We will continue to fight, we will continue to usurp your power and we will continue to protect our own. Black women will continue to stand up for light in a world full of darkness, the greatest offense to a society that has no conscience.

So when you see a black woman rise up in her power as we did—as many have done and as many will continue to do—and it causes you distress, know that it is working. For white supremacy is death, and the one who calls you up out of death is a blessing.


Marissa Jenae Johnson is a writer and speaker working at the intersection of blackness, womanhood and Christianity. Her work in the Black Lives Matter movement has garnered international attention, and she is currently working on a book about her radicalization. Follow her on Twitter.

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