The only time Marissa Janae Johnson ever doubted the interruption heard ’round the world came not long after she left a crowd of irate and disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters in a fury at downtown’s Westlake Park.
She was walking from the stage when she received a message in a group chat from Deray McKesson, a leading figure in the Black Lives Matter movement. The shutdown was playing poorly in the media, the message said. He wanted to help.
And for just a split second, she questioned her role in what had just taken place. Was it right for her and Mara Jacqueline Willaford to invade a local union rally that featured a keynote address from the great (white) liberal messiah? Had it been wise to relegate Sanders to a mere bystander by taking the mic from the U.S. Senator’s hands right before he was about to deliver his gospel of class politics?
Were they correct in electing to withstand an onslaught of jeering fused with forceful chants of “Let Bernie speak!” in order to lead four and a half minutes of silence in honor of black men and women killed by police?
A moment later, she arrived at her answer: You’re damn right.
It wasn’t the booing, hissing, and n-word carpet-bombing by some of the supporters in attendance that assured her she and Willaford were right, though it provided some affirmation.
Rather, moral certainty returned to her, forged from a firm belief that the platform she had taken from Sanders, albeit briefly, was one she was obliged to capture.
For Johnson, Sanders and every other candidate seeking this land’s highest office should have heeded the warning signs that business as usual was over. Retribution was long overdue for the persistent neglect of black people’s grievances by politicians.
She looked at the previous interruption of presidential candidates by Black Lives Matter protesters a month before at the progressive-minded Netroots Nation conference, where Sanders and his fellow presidential candidate Martin O’Malley failed to commit to supporting the fledgling movement while stumbling to ad-lib any lines off-script from their preplanned talking points.
Consequences were needed for doing nothing to address the issues raised after that first disruption, when no candidate came out with any concrete policies, nor statements of purpose that their campaigns were aligned in common cause with black liberation.
The equation was simple: Candidate X having a platform and failing to do what they said they were going to do equals that candidate forfeiting that platform.
Bernie never stood a chance.
To hell with “respectability.”
Oh, that word . . . its six syllables summoning ghosts of Carlton Banks and Theo Huxtable, and epitomized in the present day by figures such as Don Lemon and Tyler Perry.
Its position as a cardinal tenet of how black people should properly go about obtaining legitimacy in America’s political system is the main argument Johnson receives, almost daily, to this day, as to why what the duo did on the afternoon of August 8 was so wrong.
As we sit in the Central District’s Wonder Coffee and Sports Bar, she reveals to me an unsolicited Facebook message sent her by a progressive “ally” that reads like a carbon copy of what she’s grown accustomed to hearing these past five months.
With a word count that gives the Dead Sea Scrolls a run for their money, the woman’s tome begins with a lengthy disclaimer of how much she respects Johnson, that she agrees with the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement, and means her no offense.
Then the crux of the missive floods the screen of Johnson’s smartphone. “Democrats are not the enemy . . . Racist, demon-hearted Republicans are to blame for our collective ills . . . interruption of Bernie Sanders absolutely the wrong tactic . . . ”
The remainder reads akin to “yada, yada, yada . . . world peace.”
Such intrusions into their personal lives have become a new normal, for both Johnson and Willaford (who is still taking time for herself following all the publicity, and who didn’t respond to my interview request).
The two no longer work closely together, though they remain friends. “We’re different people, with different strengths,” says Johnson after her order of kitfo arrives.
Her strength was fully tested in the months after the rally. Besides the initial media backlash, Johnson shares that she received very little support from friends and family. Many times she was forced to serve as an anchor for them, as they got caught up in the mounting scrutiny her actions invited. The devout Christian was even kicked off her church’s worship ministry team.
“There were friends who left me, people who turned their back on me that I thought wouldn’t,” she says.
She talks about being broken during that time, even as she and Willaford broke the Internet in the wake of their actions. (The pair became the top trend on both Facebook and Twitter—for one bright shining moment. anyone related to the Kardashian clan had to settle for the silver medal in social-media mentions.)
The breaking was important, however. It allowed her to locate a place of security within her, and to grow as a person.
It also helped her to deal with sustained backlash. Reddit pages still exist dedicated to disparaging her, one even going into grotesque detail about how to perform an act of rape against her.
The philosophy major seems indifferent to it, however, as well as to the outpouring of positive sentiment she’s received. She rejects the notion that she’s “special” or unique, as many of her admirers often label her, revealing a luminous smile as she chuckles when I mention that a fourth grader I tutor compared her to Katniss Everdeen.
She is, however, leveraging her increased visibility. She is writing a book that will be part memoir, part manual on how to be an effective agitator in our current political system. “It’s easy to infiltrate,” she matter-of-factly tells me. She’s also a sought-after speaker, recently distilling wisdom to a packed house of students in the auditorium of Seattle University and even playing the Bernie incident for laughs at The Seattle Process, local comedian Brett Hamil’s Daily Show–style event at the Northwest Film Forum.
The media continues to knock on her door incessantly. Both The
Atlantic and a French-language newspaper have reached out to her for a feature article in the past week.
Interestingly enough, she thought the Westlake interruption would be limited to the local news cycle.
“I really was just hoping to make the Seattle Weekly,” she shares.
The aftershocks from the earthquake Johnson and Willaford set off from liberals, libertarians, and activists alike still rumble.
Though interruptions at events did not start with these two, their actions arguably gave the most potent fuel to the movement’s fire. YouTube footage of the incident drips with tension, as white progressives boo Johnson as she lists the names of young black people killed by police.
And the impact wasn’t just emotional—it had immediate and long-term effects on the candidates’ campaigns and speeches. Just two days after the Seattle events, Sanders’ campaign adopted a platform that broke racism down into five different kinds of violence, starting with the physical sort most visibly wielded by cops. Around the same time, Sanders hired a young racial-justice activist as his national press secretary.
By the Democratic debates of October 13, Sanders was ready to make racial justice the main course and economics an aperitif. When asked whether “black lives matter, or all lives matter,” Bernie name-dropped Sandra Bland and said, “We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom.” His answer was so good that Patrisse Cullors, one of the three women who originally founded the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, tweeted Sanders saying “good job.”
Clinton’s campaign changed too—but not as much. She met with movement activists in August for an awkward conversation in which she said she suggested that Black Lives Matter needed clearer policy goals. Then, when activists interrupted her on October 30, she said: “I have some issues to discuss and proposals to make if our friends will allow me to do it. They may actually find them to their liking.”
If that sounds a bit tepid, or even patronizing, it may have something to do with the fact that Clinton has the black vote tied up. In South Carolina, the third state to hold a primary after Iowa and New Hampshire, a recent poll showed that 86 percent of black primary voters support Clinton. Only 11 percent said they would vote for Sanders. Those numbers haven’t changed much throughout the campaign, and they aren’t expected to now.
Yet this campaign season is unique in that Democratic candidates are being held accountable for the quality of their work in addressing systemic racism. Which is why Johnson shares that the interruption of Bernie Sanders was more strategic than most people give her credit for.
Speaking about an activist who was punched and kicked by Donald Trump supporters when he tried to bring the Black Lives Matter message there, Johnson says, “I’m not really sure of what the efficacy of that was, to be honest. I appreciate all black people taking a stand—but going to a Trump rally is like going to a KKK meeting.”
In her view, disrupting Trump (whom she considered challenging to a boxing match after he made demeaning comments about her and Willaford after the Sanders event) would have produced nothing more than red meat to sate a ravenous base of closeted racists, whereas going after Sanders brought to light things that otherwise would have remained under the cloak of political politeness and, oh yes, respectability.
“We made one of the most liberal rallies sound just like a Ku Klux Klan meeting. It forced Bernie and Hillary to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. It was the most effective 30 minutes of my life,” she says.
As the year turns, Johnson sees herself pressing on with her mission of continuously raising the stakes in making demands of those in power until they deliver on them. It’s why she dismisses the recent adoption of Black Lives Matters verbiage by Democratic candidates as nothing but a meaningless political stunt.
“Oh, great, they said something about Black Lives Matter, that’s not impressive. That’s like being able to get into Harvard because you’re able to write your name,” she says. Ironically enough, both Sanders and Clinton are just a couple of hours away, on this Saturday evening, from taking the stage at the latest Democratic debate, where indeed they will again speak endearingly of the importance of black lives.
With speaking engagements across the country and no shortage of media still pining to hear what Johnson has to say, the momentum she received from her exploits in 2015 appears to be doing nothing but picking up steam heading into the new year.
Has she ruled out another direct action like the one in August? Put it this way: In 2016, those presidential candidates, calling themselves “believers,” who refuse to make racial issues a policy priority should pray for a merciful Marissa.
Everyone else, good luck. You’ll need it.