At a recent Bernie Sanders event, Dave, a white fiftysomething in a Grateful Dead hat, offered an explanation for Black Lives Matter, the activist group that had interrupted Sanders just hours earlier in Seattle.
They weren’t activists. They were “agent provocateurs,” Dave said, sent by the Democratic establishment to quash the Vermont socialist’s message.
His mother, who was standing next to him across the temporary fence separating the press from the crowd at a large Sanders rally on the University of Washington campus, interrupted. “He’s a conspiracy theorist,” she said.
He’s not the only one. The conspiracy theories are hiding in plain sight at Sanders’ giant rallies. The crowds are mostly white and mostly frustrated by the confrontations with black activists some Sanders supporters say are doing nothing but tearing down the only candidate who truly believes in the Black Lives Matter cause. But some of Sanders’ backers even take it a step further. Online and in person, this set of white Sanders fans wonder aloud if there’s some outside force causing the protest movement to target the senator.
The basic mythology is that someone — maybe frontrunner Hillary Clinton, maybe the Republicans, maybe her billionaire backers, maybe even the FBI — is using Black Lives Matter to tear Sanders down, to diminish an insurgent candidacy that, the supporters say, is viewed as a real threat by the establishment.
On a flight from San Francisco to Phoenix recently, for instance, a young, white, male Sanders supporter noticed the reporter sitting next to him was writing about Sanders and, unprompted, started talking about information dug up on Marissa Johnson, one of the young black women who took the stage at the Seattle Social Security event. He noted online sleuths on Reddit had discovered the woman had posted about being an evangelical Christian and a Sarah Palin supporter on Facebook years earlier. Subterfuge, he said. She’s not the real deal. Something’s afoot.
Black activists like Johnson who have interrupted Sanders on stage have been doxxed, digitally harassed, and shouted at by Sanders backers, they say. Online there is the vibrant talk about who is really, secretly, responsible. The activists laugh off specific conspiracy charges but say that the continued incredulity from Sanders’ white supporters toward their cause proves their point that “white progressivism” isn’t interested in the issues Black Lives Matter is trying to bring to the fore. The lasting conspiracy narrative is all the proof they need, the activists say.
Hours after the first reports of the Seattle action — in which a small group of activists took over an event where Sanders was set to speak — the internet lit up with people claiming there was something amiss.
“I swear they were paid to do that,” one commenter wrote in the comments of an Imgur post featuring a picture of the Seattle protesters.
“Clintons did it,” wrote another.
“It this a legitimate group? Have their official media accounts said anything concerning this? Could be paid subversion,” wrote another.
The doxxing began.
“Apparently one of the women, Marissa Johnson, was a Sarah Palin supporter some time back. You can probably draw your own conclusions…” wrote one.
It’s not everyone. On Reddit, it’s easy to find hundreds of comments discussing how best to understand, respond to, or support the activists. And it’s hard to tell the allegiances of online conspiracy theorists — and impossible to underestimate the penchant for mischief online. But many of the comments were similar to those heard in person at Sanders events over the last month.
Other online chatter claimed the protesters were paid for by George Soros, the left-wing billionaire who has helped fund efforts supporting Clinton’s run for the White House. Some even suggested the FBI was involved.
Left out is much of the context. Sanders and Martin O'Malley (unlike Clinton) attended Netroots Nation in June, where both were shut down by protesters during a candidate forum — a moment that changed the Democratic landscape this summer, and particularly for Sanders.
Since then, the protesters shut down the Seattle event, the only stop on his recent West Coast tour that his campaign did not manage or coordinate. But Sanders has had plenty of events in other locations — from New Hampshire to Iowa to New Orleans — without interruption from activists who are part of the large, dispersed, and decentralized movement called Black Lives Matter. And unlike Clinton (who has also had her own somewhat contentious interaction with activists), Sanders often speaks at large, open rallies that are free from the Secret Service security requirements that accompany Clinton. In interviews and online, Black Lives Matter activists have said Clinton’s unique security cordon versus Sanders’ relatively wide-open access has a lot to do with why he’s been protested more than she has.
His campaign is extremely sensitive to the black protest movement. Campaign officials have made efforts to reach out to the activists, and altered the Sanders stump speech to ensure “Black Lives Matter” is said more than once each time Sanders speaks.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to two requests for comment on supporters and the conspiracy issue.
The ugliness began almost immediately after the Netroots action. While Sanders’ campaign attempted to mitigate the damage and reach out to the civil movement through listening sessions and meetings that go on to this day, many supporters were upset and began trashing the protest and doubting its legitimacy in online forums.
“It was definitely from a Sanders-supporting camp of people specifically treating the action as targeting Bernie Sanders, which it wasn’t, and specifically orchestrated by somebody else — as though we don’t have the autonomy,” Tia Oso, one of the protesters who interrupted the Netroots candidate forum, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. “Almost like Black Lives Matter is not a real movement.”
“It’s very insulting and completely tone deaf and really indicative of the level of vitriol and derision that very specific Bernie Sanders supporters are exhibiting and began to exhibit right away — which is 100% racist, it’s discriminatory, it’s very anti-black,” she said.
Oso said the Netroots action sprung up organically among people in attendance at the conference and would have occurred had Clinton chose to attend. Sanders wasn’t the target, and neither was the other man onstage, O’Malley. But many Sanders supporters in Phoenix felt their man had been unfairly targeted, Oso said. She was confronted in person at the conference, she said, and within a couple weeks the first conspiracists began to appear online.
“It’s odd that none of them have showed up to any of Hillary’s speeches,” wrote Bernie subreddit user LoveIsABernieThing in late July. “Something does seem very, very fishy.”
“Hillary wouldn’t be below paying them,” Margoer replied. “We know the history of mercenary protesters.”
A few days later, other Sanders supporters explained how Soros and Clinton could be behind the whole thing. “It’s not tinfoil,” one redditor wrote.
To Oso, the conspiracy claims belittle her movement and its supporters, suggesting white Sanders supporters aren’t as progressive as they make themselves out to be. Sanders and his campaign team, she said, have made genuine attempts to understand and advocate for Black Lives Matter after Netroots. Sanders’ grassroots army has not always followed suit.
“Some of the things that he’s said has still been a little bit tone deaf, but you know, nobody’s perfect,” she said. “Overall, his commitment to making a correction and listening and being receptive has been very genuine and you are seeing a responsiveness from him — as a campaign and as an individual.”
“His supporters, again, their attitude is still condescending, disrespectful, racist, anti-black. Some stuff is even sexist, it has a hint of misogyny to it,” she went on. “There’s a huge disconnect.”
Often mixed in with the online theories is racist, misogynistic, and other common and distasteful internet flotsam. It’s important to note: Online, it can’t really be determined whether that vitriol comes from true Sanders supporters.
When Sanders was interrupted at the Social Security rally in Seattle, though, there was plenty of ugliness. Microphones caught members of the audience yelling angrily as the two women took the stage. Protesters said they heard calls for police to use their tasers and calling for their arrest. The protesters allege a water bottle was thrown at them and they were told to “shut up” because “Bernie does so much for you.”
Online, a moderator on the SandersforPresident subreddit wrote, “Seriously. It really shouldn't have to be said, but the fact of the matter is: it doesn't matter if you disagree with the movement or the actions taken by those two women yesterday. Stop brigading other subreddits. Stop going to /r/BlackLivesMatters. Stop posting racist vitriol in /r/BlackLadies.”
On the BlackLivesMatter subreddit — which claims not to be directly connected with the movement’s leaders — moderate added a two-step barrier to entry to prevent what moderators wrote were “pitchforks and torches” from Sanders supporters.
The women who took the stage in Seattle, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, say they’re very aware many Sanders supporters think they were sent to harass Bernie by one of his opponents.
“My first response to this was, ‘Bitch better have my money!’” Johnson joked, when asked about the conspiracy theories swirling that Clinton was behind the protests, to the hosts of the This Week In Blackness podcast the day after the Seattle action. “Yes, please, give me that money, I’ll expropriate those funds back to the ‘hood, let’s do it. Hillary, this is a call out: If Hillary wants to give me some money, please do.”
Johnson, the protester doxxed the most online, said her parents were “tea partyers.” She doesn’t share their politics, but she remains a “very devout, evangelical Christian.”
“I did run up there and confront Bernie Sanders because of my religious convictions. Are they right-wing religious convictions? No,” Johnson said of the accusation she is a conservative plant. “My religion says you lay down your life for other people. And so that’s why I do what I do.”
Willaford told the podcast’s hosts that the protesters — who were known in Seattle protest circles before the Sanders interruption, though other Black Lives Matter organizers in the city were not aware of the planned Sanders action — that she and Johnson were inundated with email after they interrupted Sanders, much of it nasty.
“The day of, we got emails that were like, ‘You should have been arrested, what you did was so rude and outrageous and undemocratic to take up space like that and you’re a bitch and a gorilla and whatever whatever,’” she said. “And then a couple of days later we would get an email, same person, being like, ‘So I read a couple of articles about the action and I thought about it and I was just really emotional when I sent that email I sent.’ We’ve got several emails from people apologizing for their very emotional, entitled-ass reactions to the action.”
She also heard a lot of the conspiracy talk from Sanders supporters.
“I’m really excited, you know, 50 years from now to read about this black femme power front within the FBI,” Willaford joked.
Oso, the activist who protested at Netroots, said the Black Lives Matter movement intends to stay a part of presidential politics for the foreseeable future. That means the potential for more actions, more protests, and, Oso said, more chances for Sanders supporters to show where their blind spots are.
“To decide that not only is what we did is not valid, but it was actually orchestrated by a white person with money? As though Black Lives Matter is for sale, under the corporate control of somebody else?” she said. “That is disgusting and insulting. And this is why the Netroots action, I will stand behind it 100%. It revealed and is continuing to reveal so much about what’s wrong on the left.”
Darren Sands contributed reporting.