Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Not Sorry: The Woman Who Interrupted Bernie Sanders In Seattle

Mara Willaford on the podium at a rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in August.
KUOW Photo/Hannah Burn
Mara Willaford on the podium at a rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in August. Willaford interrupted the event to call attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In August, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was in downtown Seattle for a rally. As he started speaking, he was interrupted by two women who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their simple act – taking the mic – sent the country into heated debate.

Mara Willaford was one of those women. She spoke with organizer Amir Islam about how she made it on stage and what happened next.

I'm like, “OK. We're going to get over this barricade.”

I see NAACP President Gerald Hankerson. I say, “Gerald. I'm thirsty. Bring me some water.”

He's on the other side the barricades. He gets a bottle of water, brings it over to me and we start chatting, and he's like, “Are you going to do something?”

Hear more local stories at KUOW’s StoryCorps listening party on February 4, 2016 at the New Holly Gathering Hall

I say, “We got to get to the other side of these barricades because homegirl is on the other side.”

And he's looking at me, like, “Girl, I don't even know what you're talking about. But just come over.” So he lifts the barricade and lets us through.

Security starts lining up in front of us. These security guards are shoulder to shoulder – they're like a truck, a solid wall. So I just go under their legs.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "There's nothing that can prepare you for what it actually feels like to have thousands of white people yelling at you.", "style": "pull"}]]I blink, and suddenly Bernie Sanders is at the podium.

But Marissa Johnson's not there. Marissa was going to do the talking. I literally panic; I have no idea what to do. So I strike a power pose. I put my fist in the air like John Carlos. I have no idea what to do, so I'm just going to hold space.

And then from behind me I hear Bernie Sanders say, “Thank you Seattle for being the most progressive city in America.” I'm like, man, eff this guy.

Then Marissa, I hear her voice say, “BLACK. LIVES. MATTER!”

And I turn around, and my ass is on the stage in an instant. We are both at the podium, nose to nose with Bernie.

As soon as we’re on the stage, the pressure is on. All these guys on the stage are trying to get us to sit down and shut up.

Since Marissa is supposed to do the talking, I feel like I need to be more aggressive and make sure that she gets the mic.

I'm like, “You're going to let her speak right now, or we're shutting it down.” They think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. They tell us we can speak immediately after Bernie. But that's not even the issue.

“The issue is that it's not your stage anymore. You're not negotiating with me; we're not compromising. This is my stage.”

Bernie did not deserve that platform. Black people are in a state of emergency in this country.

They are still in my ear, trying to figure out, “When is she going to be done?” and, “OK, after this she has to end, it's getting too long.”

I'm not even listening. I have one hand on the podium, one hand on my hip. And I'm staring straight into that angry-ass crowd. I'm just mean-mugging into the crowd.

[asset-images[{"caption": "An event organizer, left, tries to persuade Marissa Johnson, center, and Mara Willaford to relinquish the podium at a rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.", "fid": "119843", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201508/blm-berniesanders-ap_elaine_thompson.jpg", "attribution": "Credit AP Photo/Elaine Thompson"}]]We did so much mental, emotional, spiritual prep before the action, because we knew it was going to be controversial. We knew it was going to be a really hostile environment. But there's nothing that can prepare you for what it actually feels like to have thousands of white people yelling at you.

Especially during that moment – that four and a half minute moment of silence for Michael Brown, the day before the anniversary of his death.

I put my fist up, and I close my eyes. And I tell Marissa, “Hold my hand.” We stand there. I can hear her breath caught in her body. I can feel her shaking and crying. And I can just hear all those white folks booing.

It felt like being at a sit-in. It was really wild.

We weren't surprised by the response from the crowd. We expected them to be really hostile. We realized what we were doing was going to be controversial. I don't think you can emotionally prepare enough for what that feels like.

We knew liberals would not look so progressive when they were being called out, or when they were being inconvenienced. We knew it would make national news, but we didn't realize it would put a shock wave through the nation.

I think a lot of it was that visual of this privileged white man who has had power in office for a long time – with me and Marissa, who are very young, very femme, with colors in our hair. The visual of having young women demand power and take that platform from him had a very visceral response from the whole country. We did not realize that it would strike a chord with people like that.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Amir Islam and Mara Jaqueline Willaford told their story in New Holly last August in the StoryCorps booth.", "fid": "124514", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201602/story_corps_black_lives_matter.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of StoryCorps"}]]It's never been about Bernie, so we never worried about how he would respond. I'll say that again for the people in the back – IT WAS NEVER ABOUT BERNIE! Still isn't.

“But he marched with Martin Luther King!”

"But he's our best option."

Yes, we're actually just sheep, and we need the Democrats to corral us, otherwise they'll feed us to the wolves, the Republicans.     

It wasn't ever about trying to get Bernie to do one thing or the other; we're never going to get free because of one candidate. We were pleasantly surprised, I suppose, by his response later. He did make a lot of changes. He now is talking about race, and I think it does push other candidates to do the same. We really did push the bar.

We can acknowledge that it's a victory. It's not going to lead to freedom, but it shows that we've got people's attention.

This transcript was edited and shortened for clarity.