NEW ORLEANS ― A group of black activists took the stage at the Netroots Nation conference on Saturday night to protest the marginalization they claim to have experienced at the gathering of progressives.
Several members of a group calling itself the “Black Ass Caucus” walked onto the stage to detail their grievances to a crowd of thousands. The demonstration occurred shortly before a scheduled speech by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive who gained national attention when she upset powerful Rep. Joe Crowley to win the Democratic nomination in New York’s 14th Congressional District in June.
Over the course of 15 minutes, the black activists faulted the annual conference for scheduling panel discussions on black activism in the same time slots, called out interpersonal slights from white conference goers and lamented conference attendees’ lack of diversity and inadequate representation of New Orleans residents.
Perhaps most of all, the activists were frustrated by a lack of official recognition and scheduled time for a black caucus to meet during the weekend.
“I am not a number. We are not a number,” Ashton P. Woods of Black Lives Matter Houston declared to the conference crowd.
The only folks from New Orleans who were here were working the door. Tabitha Mustafa
Woods described white attendees who had interrupted conversations, ignored him and other black conference goers, and asked rude questions about what black participants were “doing there.”
In light of such treatment, Woods said the conference organizers’ boasts that 67 percent of their panelists were people of color amounted to “tokenization.”
He called on black and brown-skinned conference attendees to stand up. The informal survey revealed a significant number of people of color in the audience, but they were nonetheless in the minority.
Tabitha Mustafa, another demonstrator, asked the New Orleans residents in the crowd to stand and a mere handful of people rose to their feet.
“The only folks from New Orleans who were here were working the door. Were they invited into our panels? Did you invite them in?” she asked.
Mustafa also rebuked the conference for not providing more compensation and financial help for panelists and other attendees, arguing that it limited the diversity of participants who lacked adequate resources to travel to New Orleans.
The crowd was very receptive to the group’s admonitions, cheering and applauding the criticisms listed by the protesters.
When the group asked audience members to threaten not to attend next year’s conference, scheduled for Philadelphia, unless it was more attuned to the needs of black Americans and local residents, the attendees shouted, “Yes.”
After the Black Ass Caucus walked off stage to a standing ovation, Ocasio-Cortez took the stage to similar adulation. She immediately sought to “affirm” the concerns of the demonstrators.
“As my sister Ayanna Pressley likes to say, ‘The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power,’” Ocasio-Cortez said, quoting the black woman challenging Rep. Michael Capuano in Massachusetts’ Sept. 4 Democratic primary in the 7th Congressional District.
The Netroots Nation conference features time-slots for caucuses of various kinds to meet, most of them based on geographic regions and states. The Black Ass Caucus members were disappointed to find no dedicated time or organizational structure for a black caucus, though a room had been reserved as a “[Person of Color] Culture Space.”
The people responsible for organizing a black caucus did not show up at the conference, according to khalid kamau, a South Fulton, Georgia, city councilman and conference panelist who participated in the protest.
Together with the scheduling conflict of panel discussions focused on black organizing, the perceived affront helped prompt the public display of dissatisfaction.
“We felt like our issues were not being clearly articulated,” said LaTwyla Mathias, one of the founders of the Black Ass Caucus.
The goal of the demonstration, according to kamau, was to “make sure that this doesn’t happen again next year.”
Prior to the protest, the caucus members engaged in a heated, last-minute discussion with Netroots Nation organizers who sought to address their concerns on the spot. When organizers were unable to satisfy the group’s immediate demands, they invited the protesters to take the stage, according the organizers.
“Netroots has a policy to always work with protestors to surface their demands and see if there are immediate workable solutions,” said Mary Rickles, Netroots Nation’s political director.
“Protest is a Netroots tradition,” Rickles added. “We are honored to work with the community to share their vital ideas for making Netroots a more inclusive, just space going forward.”
Netroots Nation leaders have committed to a conference call in a few weeks’ time to discuss how to improve next year’s conference with members of the Black Ass Caucus.
Despite the warm reception that the demonstration received, the grievances that led to the protest speak to the persistence of internecine conflicts on the political left that periodically bubble to the surface. Critics often deride the contemporary progressive movement, which matured largely online during the buildup to and the first phases of the Iraq War, for the alleged prevalence of white, middle-class activists in its ranks.
Three of the last four Networks Nation conferences have now been marked by racial justice-related protests. These included a disruption at the 2015 gathering in Phoenix, where demonstrators interrupted presidential candidate forums with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, demanding that they pay more attention to police killings of black people and other civil rights issues.