PHILADELPHIA — Every night of the Democratic National Convention, Pastor Ray Shawn McKinnon and his friend Sebastian stayed up talking well past 3 am in their Holiday Inn hotel room.
The two met last summer volunteering for Bernie Sanders in North Carolina, and soon became close friends. McKinnon, who is black and 6'1", calls Sebastian, who is white and 5'2", his "pint-sized conscience." Over 14 months, they were inseparable allies: canvassing, phone-banking, and organizing for a common cause.
But now they’re at odds — and trying to make sense of it. Sebastian says he can’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. But McKinnon can’t believe that his onetime allies, including Sebastian, hate Clinton so much that they would risk a presidency McKinnon thinks would be a catastrophe for minorities — including his four black sons.
"If Donald Trump wins, he's more likely to appoint judges who oppose Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform, and who think that police officers — who can kill black people without being charged — already don't have enough power. That means if my kids get shot, the officers who did it would become less likely to be charged," he says. "This isn’t theory for us. It’s reality."
Last week, I published an interview with Kirk Voorhees, a trucker and Sanders supporter who gave the best explanation I’d heard for "Bernie or Bust." Now, I want to present the best counter-argument I’ve heard — from McKinnon, a true foot soldier of the "political revolution."
McKinnon, a Methodist pastor, speaks from within Bernie-world. But he has a powerful overriding message for the Bernie or Bust crowd: Please, don’t do anything that would force my kids to live through a Trump presidency.
"A lot of white liberals don’t understand that they have the privilege of a protest vote that will hurt the people they purport to stand for — black people, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and so many people who will be affected adversely if Trump wins," McKinnon says. "I don’t have the luxury of conviction."
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
Jeff Stein: When we met you had just been arguing with [Green Party presidential candidate] Jill Stein, who arrived inside the DNC convention arena to try to win over Bernie Sanders supporters after he had officially lost the nomination to Clinton.
I know you told Stein to leave, and said she shouldn’t have crashed the Democratic convention. What bothered you about her showing up?
Ray McKinnon: I never intended to confront Jill Stein — I was literally going to the bathroom, since I had been holding it for forever. But when I saw her, I felt like what she was doing was not only rude, but symptomatic of some liberal white people who co-opt the work of others.
To me, it was the gall to be there to try to take away all the hard work we had put in to get the Bernie Sanders movement off the ground. And I had friends who spent hundreds of hours, including Sanders supporters, trying to put together the DNC convention. And her showing up was a sign of disrespect for that work — she can hold a rally somewhere else.
The other thing was that I felt like it was an injustice to play off the real deep hurt that people who worked so hard for Sanders were feeling. They laid it all out there for Bernie, and she wanted to come swoop in and play on those emotions at that moment — and that just made me angry.
JS: Well, from her perspective she’s trying to do what she can to help the movement she believes is necessary. As a Sanders delegate, why do you believe supporting Jill Stein is such a mistake?
RM: I had so many conversations this week about people who said that they were supporting Jill Stein. And to them I’ve tried making this point clear: I don’t have the privilege of supporting Jill Stein.
I’m black, and I have four black sons. Some white liberals have the privilege to pretend that Jill Stein is going to be taken seriously. I don’t. If Donald Trump wins, he's more likely to appoint judges that oppose Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform, and who think that police officers — who can kill black people without being charged — already don't have enough power. That means if my kids get shot, the officers who did it would become less likely to be charged. A lot of white liberals don’t understand that they have the privilege of a protest vote that will hurt the people they purport to stand for — black people, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and so many people who will be affected adversely if Trump wins.
If they stay home or vote for a third party — particularly in swing states — these folks are gambling with real lives. Because here’s the reality: They won’t be affected by the fallout. Their privilege will inoculate them to it, but minorities won’t be. I don’t understand how they could not see that.
So I don’t have the luxury of conviction. I can’t afford four years of tyranny. Trust me, I would love if Hillary had every position that Bernie has. But I live in the real world, and in the real world — even if Hillary isn’t 100 percent where I want her — at least I trust that she will be better than Trump for the people I love.
JS: So of the Sanders supporters I spoke to in Philadelphia, the ones who were African American or Latino seemed more likely to be ready to vote for Clinton. Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone, but is your sense also that black Bernie die-hards are more willing to support her?
RM: That’s very accurate. Of my friends who are white and strong Bernie supporters, I’d say maybe over 10 percent are Bernie or Bust. Of my black friends who were strong Bernie supporters, it’s maybe closer to 1 percent — I know one black person who is Bernie or Bust.
When a lot of the white Sanders supporters met me, they were suspicious because they bought the narrative that no black people voted for Sanders. We almost had to explain ourselves, because there’s this unconscious bias they have now. They’d look at me wearing my Bernie shirt and say, "You’re a Bernie supporter?" One guy asked me twice. Another guy kept asking what I’d done for Bernie.
I’ve been a Bernie Sanders supporter since 2003. I’ve worked maybe 10 to 15 hours a week for Sanders for 14 months. And now some of the Bernie people see me as a sellout. It’s a weird place to be — you feel almost on an island. And the irony is that the same principle that made me stand up for Bernie in the primary now makes me want to stand up for Hillary in the general election.
JS: My colleague Dara Lind recently published a story in which she tried thinking through the logic of the protesters who were booing Clinton’s speech at the convention. Does booing Clinton there make sense? Or does it contradict what you see as the need to support her in November?
RM: I don’t think they should fall in line. None of us should fall in line. They should raise their voices and hold her accountable — and continue to always do so. But what I want for them to do [when it comes time for the election] is to sit down and really take stock of where we are and ask themselves if they’re okay with the outcome of Trump.
You look at the civil rights movement: Those leaders spoke vehemently out against the policies of the Democrats. But they went on to vote for them. I don’t think you have to pick between holding someone accountable and giving them your vote. Martin Luther King held LBJ accountable — but he also gave him his vote, because that was the better option to advance [MLK’s] cause.
If we are silent, people will take our silence as agreement — and we don’t want to be complicit with some of those things she said. When she says we need to make Israel safe and doesn’t mention Palestine, I don’t want my silence to be misconstrued as me agreeing with her. I want Clinton and the DNC to know that even though I’m with her, I will never stop holding my party accountable and pushing them to recognize that the lives of Palestinian families are just as important as those of Israeli families.
JS: But so what’s the distinction between that point of view and saying that you won’t vote for her? Why draw the line at the general election — and not, say, booing her at the convention?
RM: One of my closest friends, Sebastian — we had a conversation like this every night. All day and all night, till 3 am — we pissed each other off so much. I pissed him off over this privilege conversation.
And he made this point: that if Bernie had given up when they wanted him to, we’d never have what we have in the platform, and the movement wouldn’t be this strong or this powerful. And I get that.
There are also some folks who think we don’t have time for incremental change, and — rightly — believe that we need it right now. They look at Clinton’s history and think she only believes in incremental change. And I get that — I really do. I understand how they’re feeling. I hear your grief and pain and anger. I felt it, too.
But this is a different stage, and we’re in a different reality. I have to believe she’s a progressive who, historically, was more willing to make compromises to make incremental change than allowing no change to be made at all.
A lot of the black Bernie supporters — we are still activists, and we are still down for the cause. But we’re not going to give in to this pressure. We know that what’s at stake in this election is our bodies and the bodies of our kids and nephews and Muslim friends and transgender sisters and brothers. This isn’t theory for us. It’s reality.
JS: When I talk to the Bernie or Bust crowd, they say they really don’t believe that Clinton will fight for working-class people given how much money she’s taken from special interest groups. As a Sanders supporter, how do you reconcile voting for her with the amount she’s taken in corporate contributions?
RM: There’s no denying Secretary Clinton has gotten large donations from wealthier folks, but all I can do is to acknowledge that and weigh it against the consequences of what happens if I don’t vote for her.
I can’t argue that she hasn’t done those things. I’m left with taking her at her word at the convention that she’s committed to taxing corporations and making sure the wealthiest pay their fare share and overturning Citizens United. It’s the best I got.
The way I try to reconcile it is to say that I have to hold her accountable to things that she has to adopt. We have to hold her to that: I don’t have any illusions that Sanders didn’t push her there, but now that she is there it’s up to us to hold her accountable.
JS: But once you give her your vote, how do you do that? The best version you get of the Green Party argument is that withholding your vote from Clinton will prevent her from moving to the center — that if she fears her left flank defecting, she’ll resist moving in that direction to ensure that she cements it.
How do you hold a politician accountable after committing to support her with your vote?
RM: Well, first, there’s always another election and another primary. And she’s going to need our votes.
Also, what’s clear is that politicians respond to constituents. If our voices are louder and we’re demonstrating and organizing, they respond to that — yes, the ultimate accountability is at the ballot box, but it’s not the only one. When we show up to listen and organize in a sustained way — in a way that threatens them getting reelected or their legacy — they tend to listen. These things work. If in a unified way, they can rattle those in power.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a real gamble. But — and I hate to go back to this — I like my chances with her much more than with any of the other candidates.
Hillary Clinton is not going to fear Jill Stein or the Green Party, which is polling at like 2 percent and has never done better and has no organization. Who she is going to fear, frankly, are the people who are involved — those who help with the process of the election, and have knocked on doors, and are working to create the party.
JS: I have lots of friends who are just fundamentally convinced that the election was stolen, and that to vote for Clinton is to consent to a system in which the party denies the public their choice.
Obviously, that’s wrong, but I feel like no amount of evidence — not to mention Sanders himself — can convince them that he lost because he got fewer votes, and that can be really frustrating. How do you go about trying to do that?
RM: It is very frustrating. It’s this back and forth, where I try to say that I don’t believe the system is rigged and here’s why we have superdelegates; here’s how it came to be; this is why we got the primaries; here’s how all of the stuff existed. And that we lost fairly and squarely, even if it’s hard for people to admit it. That it wasn’t rigged; it wasn’t stolen; that they got more votes and that’s why she’s the nominee.
Then we still disagree, and it comes to this point of: "When someone is deeply convinced of something like this that’s just outside of reason, there’s just no way to dissuade them."
There’s nothing I can say to a person who at their core just hates Hillary Rodham Clinton for reasons unbeknownst to me. But there are people who I think are looking at their options and saying to themselves, "Who most shares our values?" And if you’ve asked that from a reasoned perspective — if you agree with Hillary on 90 percent and Jill Stein on 95 percent, does it really make more sense to go with Jill Stein even if she has no chance of winning?
JS: One of the coming fights you can already hear starting is over who is to blame if Sanders holdouts hurt Clinton in the general election.
Some will think Sanders holdouts would be at fault if Trump wins, much like Ralph Nader was blamed for Al Gore losing in 2000.
But Sanders supporters argue that if Clinton loses, it’s not their fault — that if she wasn’t a good enough candidate to win, she’s to blame.
RM: I completely agree with that. A lot of my friends in the Hillary camp, as the primary was ending, were saying that Sanders needs to endorse her. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s your job to sell it. The Democrats need to sell why our platform is best, and not try to disparage those who disagree with it.
It is Hillary’s job to convince people to vote for her. If they fall where they fall, I can’t disparage them for that. I’m not trying to say, "You’re wrong for feeling this way," but to try to say, "Can you see my perspective? Can you see that these outcomes of electing Trump will be very challenging to what you believe? And is that worth it?"