Sen. Bernie Sanders is arguably the most progressive candidate in the current presidential campaign; he has been a civil rights activist for more than 50 years and even marched on Washington in 1963 to see the Rev. Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech. Why, then, is the #BlackLivesMatter movement harassing Sanders, protesting at his events and disrupting his speeches
Last month in Phoenix, Sanders and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley were interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter protesters at a Netroots Nation event in Phoenix to demand more governmental protection and attention be paid to African Americans, specifically those who have died in police custody.
At an event this past Saturday, #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted Sanders before he could speak, eventually forcing him off the stage without ever speaking. They demanded Sanders take action on saving black lives and called on him to address structural racism and release his plans to reform policing.
On the surface, it appears #BlackLivesMatter is picking on the wrong candidate. If activists fear protesting and disrupting Donald Trump due to an almost certain blowback, they could choose any other candidate on the Republican side and find disagreement on social justice and civil rights matters much more than with Bernie Sanders.
But activists know that by hammering a progressive like Sanders can effect the change the movement seeks. Attempting to convince candidates on the right, who have been largely dismissive of the movement, is fruitless.
Sanders’ critics say that, despite his progressiveness, he does not fully understand the gravity of racial inequality. He prioritizes economic equality over racial equality and views racial inequality as a symptom of economic inequality. Sanders has focused on improving economic opportunities for young African Americans and sees fixing unemployment among Blacks as a driver to solve racial inequality.
Among the Black community, however, economic inequality and racial inequality are viewed as parallel issues that must be tackled separately.
Following the first Saturday event where he was unable to speak, Sanders told CNN it was “unfortunate because, among other things, I wanted to talk about the issues of black lives, the fact that the American people are tired of seeing unarmed African-Americans shot and killed. But,” he added, “there are other issues as well that we have to talk about.”
The activists appeared to have touched a nerve, though, and Sanders’ rhetoric later that day and the next day focused more on support of racial issues.
However, before speaking at a second event on Saturday, the Sanders campaign announced it had hired Symone Sanders (no relation to the senator), a young, Black criminal justice advocate, to be national press secretary. Though the timing of the announcement was suspect, the campaign said Sanders, who serves as the national youth chair of the Coalition on Juvenile Justice, began interviewing for the position weeks ago.
It was Sanders who introduced Sen. Sanders to a record crowd of more than 15,000 supporters at that second Saturday event the biggest turnout for any presidential candidate so far pointing to his credentials in the fight for racial equality. Sen. Sanders’ speech did not include much more on the topic beyond saying, “As somebody who has one of the strongest lifetime civil rights record in Congress, no president will fight harder to end the stain of racism in this country and reform the criminal justice system.”
By Sunday, speaking at an event in which the 28,000-person crowd nearly doubled the previous day’s record-breaking attendance, Sanders said “bringing people together” is at the core of his campaign and called for criminal justice reform. “There is no candidate who will fight harder to end institutional racism in this country and to reform our broken criminal justice system.”
The campaign also simultaneously released a comprehensive racial justice platform stating that, “We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color. That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”
According to Sanders, “African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetuated by police, and racist terrorism by white supremacists.”
By Monday, Black Twitter was reviewing that platform with cautious optimism.
Deray McKesson, a popular activist within the #BlackLivesMatter movement (and who incidentally was arrested Monday at a sit-in in St. Louis), said on Twitter Sunday night, “The ‘violence’ framing in the initial draft of the Sanders Racial Justice platform is powerful. & I look forward to seeing him expand this.”
The Sanders campaign engaged on McKesson’s Twitter feed Monday, saying it would like to work together to iron out the issues of importance to Black Americans, and at least one of McKesson’s followers seemed to reflect a turning sentiment:
“@BernieSanders With your quick response to #BlackLivesMatter & outreach to activists, you now have my vote & support.”
Sanders, the new press secretary, told BuzzFeed that Sen. Sanders had already incorporated some of her suggestions on addressing racial issues into his campaign.
“One of my suggestions, he took it and ran with it on ‘Meet the Press,’ is that racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” she said. “I [told him,] you know, economic equality is an issue. It’s something we need to address. But for some people it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, it doesn’t matter what your parents do. It doesn’t matter that Sandra Bland had a job and was on her way to teach for her alma mater. It doesn’t matter. None of that matters.”
The #BlackLivesMatter movement released a statement Monday saying the organization will not be endorsing any candidate “at this time.”