Who are the protesters who shouted Bernie Sanders off the stage? At least one has made her mark before at a series of contentious public meetings.
Six months before two Black Lives Matter activists shouted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders off the stage Saturday at Westlake Park, one of them walked to the front of the room at a contentious Metropolitan King County Council meeting on a new juvenile-justice center and confronted the politicians.
“You guys are a bunch of fascists,” said Marissa Johnson, pointing her finger at the council members.
Saying she wanted to make them as uncomfortable as they had made her, she then led members of the audience behind her in chants of “Hands Up: Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter,” both growing mantras in the national movement protesting police shootings of unarmed black men.
It was near the end of an already three-hour-long meeting, which had broken up numerous times during often angry comments from the audience. The council voted as the chants reached a fevered pitch but quickly adjourned again when the vote was over.
Not much is yet publicly known about Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, the other activist who pushed Sanders aside to talk about police brutality — in the process launching a tsunami of press and social-media commentary across the country. While some decried the women’s tactics as foolish and counterproductive, others noted that such confrontations have a long history in the civil-rights movement.
Johnson, listed on a Facebook page as the contact person for the Westlake Park protest, told black radio station TWiB Monday night that she is a devout evangelical Christian who had supported Sarah Palin in high school. She added that her views are now far to the left.
She has also made her mark at a series of public meetings since the Ferguson shooting last year that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. Several of those meetings broke up temporarily or ended early after she and others made their points loudly and forcefully.
On Jan. 12, for instance, Johnson was one of a number of activists who began shouting and singing at a Seattle City Council meeting in which Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole was to discuss her department’s response to protests over police abuse.
The public-comment period had closed, but Johnson, again taking to the front of the room, declared: “We will reopen public comment because this is our city and our council.”
The council suspended the meeting temporarily and O’Toole eventually gave her report, although the shouting continued periodically.
A couple of weeks later, Johnson was invited to appear on a panel discussing body cameras, organized by the Community Police Commission. She, along with a fellow panelist, was identified as a member of a group called “Outside Agitators 206,” which on its website calls for an end to “police terror” and the “slavery that is the prison system.”
At the panel, Johnson said she wanted to get rid of all police, whom she labeled abusive and authoritarian. And she called the discussion of body cameras a “farce.”
“I don’t need a home video of my oppression,” she said.
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She also revealed a little more about herself. “I am what you would classify as someone who is a brown-noser, well-to-do, has always really respected authority,” she said, adding that she has “a certain education” and lives “in certain kinds of neighborhoods.”
Nevertheless, she said, she had recently been thrown against a van by police at a recent protest.
While having visible support at these events, Johnson has not been embraced by everyone in the Black Lives Matters movement. Mohawk Kuzma, a local activist who has acted as a de facto spokesman at some Black Lives Matter protests, said Monday he knew Johnson from past activism but that she generally didn’t get involved “unless it’s a public stunt.”
The Saturday protest, he said, was “two individuals doing their own independent action.”
But Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP, said Monday he doesn’t blame the women for seizing the opportunity at Sanders’ rally to call attention to their cause Saturday.
“This is a man running for leadership of the country,” Hankerson said, and he should be asked about race.
While Hankerson added that he had no opinion on the exact tactics the women used, he observed: “Civil disobedience and direct action have been cornerstones of activism as long as I’ve been around.”
If the liberal Sanders supporters in the crowd didn’t like it, he suggested, that’s partly their problem. He quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” King wrote.
State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, who had spoken right before Sanders’ scheduled talk, echoed those sentiments, adding that the swiftly hostile reaction by the crowd of mostly white progressives showed the “fairly thin veneer in terms of what it means to support true progress in the black-lives movement.”
While some white liberals took to social media over the weekend to express their unhappiness with what transpired at Westlake Park, others refrained from criticism.
“I do not in any way demonize these women,” Robby Stern, a longtime local labor leader who emceed the rally, said Monday. “There is good reason for their anger.”
Johnson and Willaford certainly accomplished one thing: They found a national platform. “We shut the Internet,” Johnson told The Times on Monday in an apparent reference to the deluge of attention her protest had received. She sounded pleased.