The Black Lives Matter movement has accomplished this past week one of the things it does best: Expose how clumsy major politicians can be when they talk about race.
Last weekend, activists upstaged former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) at the progressive Netroots Nation convention, demanding that the Democratic presidential candidates address the death of a black woman who allegedly committed suicide in police custody where she was being held for a minor traffic violation.
“We are in a state of emergency,” a Black Lives Matter Activist who identified herself as Patrice said, as O’Malley looked on somewhat awkwardly. “And if you don’t know that emergency, you are not human.”
“What will you do to stop police unions battering our names after their law enforcement kills us?” Patrice said.
Both presidential candidates stumbled over their answers.
O’Malley was forced to apologise after he said, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter,” a point that many activists view as dismissive of the unique problem of police violence against African-Americans.
Sanders ran into similar trouble when he refused to engage with activists after they interrupted his speech on income inequality. He threatened to walk offstage and appearing visibly agitated that protesters had interrupted his speech.
“Black lives matter. But I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights. If you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK,” Sanders said.
It was a perfect moment for the movement. In exposing how unprepared two candidates who are trying to run to Hillary Clinton’s left were to answer a question about race and policing, the Black Lives Matter activists showed that neither party is perfectly prepared to answer key questions about race relations.
But looking at the numbers, it’s not surprising that neither O’Malley nor Sanders was prepared to deal with those questions.
That’s because both candidates have been campaigning hard for Democratic primary voters who are much less concerned about issues related to race than many other hot-button issues affecting Americans.
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released in May, the biggest issues for Democratic primary voters — who are overwhelmingly white, and fairly old — are concerns about the shrinking middle class, income inequality, and climate change. A recent Bloomberg poll of Iowa voters found that caucus-goers overwhelmingly wanted candidates to talk about race relations and criminal-justice reform, but both issues were far lower priorities than everything from climate change to international trade.
The event at Netroots only solidified growing concern that Sanders is ignoring civil rights issues related to race.
Sanders has been picking up steam but remains virtually unknown outside of his overwhelmingly white, liberal base, a problem that he has admitted that he needs to correct.
Though he’s tried to recover from Netroots by featuring race and social justice issues more prominently in his stump speech, some Black Lives Matter activists have also been wary of some Sanders supporters’ attempts to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement.
Earlier this month, a veteran named Tyson Manker, an outspoken public Sanders campaign volunteer, posted a since-deleted tweet which asserted that Sanders was one of the first Black Lives Matter activists.
The tweet sparked a wave of backlash.
Critics asserted it detracted from the accomplishments of black civil-rights leaders. The incident also partially inspired the hashtag #berniesoblack, which mocks Sanders supporters who have defended the senator from criticism over not talking about race.
“It erased the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, civil rights leaders, and all those fighting for Black Lives before Bernie,” Zellie Imani, a community organiser and blogger for Black-culture.com, told Business Insider.
O’Malley hasn’t found himself in much of a better position to speak out about social justice issues.
O’Malley kicked off his campaign earlier this year in Baltimore only weeks after protests and riots rocked the city in response to the death of an unarmed black man who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody. As governor of Baltimore in the early 2000s, O’Malley oversaw a “zero-tolerance” police crackdown aimed at lowering the city’s violent crime rates, which some local political figures claim lead to increased tensions.
“We still have men who are suffering from it today,” Marvin “Doc” Cheathem, a past president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, told The Washington Post recently. “The guy is good at talking, but a lot of us know the real story of the harm he brought to our city.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has taken notice. During a Facebook chat with supporters on Monday, she ended up answering questions from a number of journalists — including The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, who asked her what she would have said to the protesters to whom her rivals were unprepared to talk.
“Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that,” she said.
Three days later, she delivered perhaps her most blunt remarks to date about race during a campaign swing through South Carolina, saying the country must confront “systemic racism.” Again, she twice invoked the “black lives matter” manta.
But many activists say that Clinton, too, needs to show what she’ll do to improve the lives of African-Americans and decrease law enforcement violence against African-Americans, rather than simply express solidarity.
Frustrated with the Democratic response, many Black Lives Matter activists warn that Democrats should not take their voices and votes for granted — after African-Americans turned out to vote in droves for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“For decades the Democratic Party based their strategy on assumption of receiving the black vote without accountability to black voters,” Imani told Business Insider. “But the youth have found their voice, and found that their voice is strong. No candidate, Democratic or Republican, will campaign without having to publicly address their position sooner of later on their campaign trail.”
But if activists do decide to abandon the Democratic Party, it’s not clear that they will find many allies on the Republican side.
The same Bloomberg poll of Iowans shows that Republican primary voters have little desire to talk about race relations. When asked about 20 high-profile issues, GOP primary voters ranked race relations second-to-last among topics that they want presidential candidates to talk about. The only topic that polled lower was climate change.
And on Thursday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush scoffed at a question about whether O’Malley should have apologised for his “Black Lives Matter” comments.
“No, for crying out loud, no. Are we so uptight and so politically correct now that you have to apologise for saying lives matter?” Bush said.
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