Netroots Nation protest

Demonstrators at Netroots Nation's 2018 conference in New Orleans demanded more people of color control its programming and platforms.

Demonstrators crashed the stage at progressive conference Netroots Nation to demand more people of color in leadership roles within the organization, and to involve people from “frontline” communities to create the programming, from what’s being taught in workshops and panels to the kinds of candidates who get considerable stage time in front of a national audience.

Throughout this year’s conference in New Orleans, organizers highlighted the predominance of people of color among its stages and panels, many of which addressed the dominance of white people in progressive groups and how activists can prevent the “white savior” mentality.

But protesters pointed to the conference’s undercurrent of people of color essentially being asked to volunteer their time to teach white progressives how to support the work already being done by people of color in communities of color, while emerging progressive groups often are reinventing the wheel of activism from a position of white comfort, unwilling to make a sacrifice.

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists crashed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ appearance at that year’s conference, and in 2017, protesters chanted “trust black women” over a speech from Georgia's then-gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans. Washington Post politics writer Dave Wiegel asked who would get the bumrush this year (Twitter voted for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris).

Demonstrators criticized the conference for forcing panelists to compete with one another, stuffing important discussions into competitive schedules and neglecting communities outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, particularly the large black working class of hospitality workers accommodating the conference attendees and their barrier to entry. “What does it mean to be progressive when you’re not actually living out your values?” asked New Orleans organizer Tabitha Mustafa.

Demonstrators called out “white allies who refused to be accomplices,” putting the future of the progressive left on the lives of people in the country’s most vulnerable communities.

Mustafa also demanded Netroots ensure that the candidates who appear on its stages “actually support us,” and that “anyone who comes on this stage actually represents all of the values, not some of the values,” Mustafa said.

Mustafa specifically called out Mayor LaToya Cantrell — whose name often appeared in candidates’ speeches celebrating the momentum of local progressive elections, particularly for black women. The moment highlighted an uncomfortable disconnect with Netroots and not only the state’s Democratic leadership, but also the at-odds spectrum of the left and Democrats courting the progressive vote. Meanwhile, Netroots organizers hailed the conference for pulling off its biggest one yet in a “red state.”

Many panelists and activists don’t align Cantrell’s win and time in office with the platforms championed among organizers at Netroots — from afar, pundits and political watchers have viewed Cantrell’s election as the city’s first black woman mayor, and the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina “recovery,” as lessons in the power of grassroots organizing around progressive candidates.

After condemning the “identity politics” label, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris in her Netroots speech contrasted Ruby Bridges’ school desegregation walk to Cantrell’s ascent, as well as Katrina’s exposure of institutionalized racism to the city “coming back to life,” and New Orleans’ role as the largest port of enslaved people to the elections of both her and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker to the U.S. Senate.

Others put Cantrell in the same breath as Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who pledged to make Jackson the “most radical city on the planet,” and Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Randall Woodfin, who, in his Netroots address, challenged white supremacy, voter roll purges, and the imprisonment of immigrant children. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the ascent of candidates like Lumumba, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, adding, “You see it here in LaToya Cantrell right here in New Orleans.”

Even Netroots’ own panels and trainings were digging into the city’s rampant inequalities, from entrenched disparities in charter schools to expanded surveillance networks criminalizing the city’s black and immigrant communities, to the guise of “public-private partnerships” priming private development and gentrification using public funds.

Cantrell’s own Netroots address focused on racial and economic justice — though she didn’t mention the billing crisis at the Sewerage & Water Board making headlines amid the agency’s own turbulent spending and infrastructure failures, nor her pledge to “work with” Jim Crow-era monument supporters upon taking office despite pushback from black organizers.

At Netroots, Mustafa participated in a panel with constitutional rights advocates about law enforcement surveillance in black communities and the scope of its impact. (“Surveillance is not a threat; it’s an action,” Mustafa said.) On the stage Aug. 4, Mustafa pointed to the Convention Center’s aid in funding the city’s real-time surveillance network, which has Cantrell’s support. Mustafa asked whether the crowd even knew about it.

“Whenever you hear a candidate speak, we want you to demand they’re speaking on racial justice issues,” said YahNé Ndgo. “If they're not speaking in a way that's honoring racial justice, walk the f— out.”

Ocasio-Cortez appeared immediately after demonstrators left and affirmed their time on the stage, adding that “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

The New York congressional candidate and democratic socialist delivered a message to Democrats and linked the party of the New Deal and Civil Rights Act to its possibilities in embracing a progressive future: “It’s time for us to come home.”

“When working people know we’re fighting for them the most, they will fight for us, too,” she said. “There is nothing radical about moral clarity ... There is some debate here, and that’s all right; we can embrace that. Discourse is not discord. Family can argue and that’s all right because we come out healthier on the other end.”