While Hillary Clinton appears at carefully controlled events, her most significant opponent for the Democratic nomination, Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, seems to be willing to appear in less scripted gatherings. The result has been that Senator Sanders has taken the brunt of the #BlackLivesMatter frustration with the torpor of the Democratic party on racial equity issues while Secretary Clinton carefully cultivates African-American support behind the scenes, particularly with an eye to the South Carolina primary. That will be the first contest in which, unlike the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire vote, black voters will be a significant force in picking the Democratic winner.
Sanders has had his public appearances disrupted on occasion by #BlackLivesMatter protesters who are calling the Democratic Party to account on the issue of racial equity—and Sanders is the immediate and convenient target. He hails from one of the whitest states in the union and his supporters appear to be largely white progressives. Without taking an ostensible stand for or against Clinton or Sanders (or Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, or Jim Webb, the other three Democrats who have declared for the nomination—and note that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig announced this week that he is exploring running as well), the BLM protesters have demonstrated how nonprofit activists can get involved in electoral politics without necessarily crossing the line of their 501(c) nonpartisan prohibition.
Without much debate, the protesters have made an issue out of the status and privilege of white progressives who don’t elevate or sometimes even recognize issues of racial equity. Their critique is that progressives’ policy solutions emphasize economic issues but gloss over and ignore the significance of race.
At the Netroots Nation presidential forum in July, protesters from #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration took over the podium from both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, which both candidates handled awkwardly. It happened again this past weekend, when Sanders was “pushed away” from speaking at a rally in Westlake Park in Seattle (an event billed as a birthday party for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security—“Social Security Works” was the theme) as two women took the mic to talk about Ferguson and Michael Brown and then, according to a Boston Globe account, apparently referred to the crowd, which wanted Sanders to speak, as “white supremacist liberals.” As Sanders is the leftmost candidate in the running and far to the left of the presumptive nominee, Secretary Clinton, actions targeting him in particular have put the progressive community in an uproar. (Sanders did get to speak later in Seattle at a different forum in front of a crowd of 12,000.)
The issues that have been raised about Sanders—and about progressives more generally—include these:
Where Bernie Sanders stands on racial equity and civil rights: To explain or defend the actions of the two women who took the mic in Seattle, Black Lives Matter Seattle issued this in a press release:
“The problem with Sanders, and with white Seattle progressives in general, is that they are utterly and totally useless (when not outright harmful) in terms of the fight for Black lives. While we are drowning in their liberal rhetoric, we have yet to see them support Black grassroots movements or take on any measure of risk and responsibility for ending the tyranny of white supremacy.”
Liberal white racial do-gooderism is rampant in the racial equity movement to be sure, but some question whether targeting Sanders might be a bit off-point. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endorsed Jesse Jackson for president and had a long history of civil rights activism before and during his term as mayor. Challenging Sanders rather than Webb, O’Malley (who as mayor of Baltimore oversaw some of the police tactics that are being challenged today), or Clinton herself seems to let them off the hook and challenges the one candidate with a strong personal civil rights pedigree. Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan suggested that the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s targeting of Sanders is misguided, “remarkably dumb,” and better directed at “someone who deserves it.” That leads to the common response that Nolan and others, including the participants in the Seattle crowd who tried to get Sanders to speak, are the all too typical white progressives telling black activists what to do and how to do it.
Getting Bernie Sanders to speak about institutional racism: Nonetheless, one of the potential impacts of these disruptions of his speeches has been to get Sanders to explicitly address institutional racism and police violence. The speaker who introduced Sanders at the Westlake event, Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal, said that she encouraged Sanders to speak about institutional racism at his second Seattle speech after having been prevented from speaking at the first. Not only did Sanders address institutional racism at the Seattle event, his campaign released a sweeping platform for combating racial inequities. Sanders spoke about his racial justice platform at a subsequent appearance in Portland, Oregon, in front of a crowd that has variously been put at between 20,000 and 28,000, depending whether the overflow crowd that couldn’t fit into the venue gets counted.
The Sanders racial justice platform that was released last week “starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.” Among the Sanders recommendations are these:
- Policy recommendations regarding physical violence: demilitarizing local police “so they don’t look and act like invading armies”; investing in community policing, increasing civilian oversight of police departments, and diversifying local police forces; using the threat of withholding federal justice funding from localities that do not make progress on developing new rules on the use of force by police and other reforms needed to counter state violence
- Addressing political violence: re-enfranchising African-Americans who cannot vote due to felony convictions; restoring the “pre-clearance” provision of the Voting Rights Act (that the Supreme Court invalidated); making Election Day a federal holiday; creating opportunities for early voting; automatic registration of every American over 18
- Reforming legal violence: banning private prisons for profit; eliminating mandatory sentencing minimums for drug violations and eliminating the sentencing disparities between blacks and whites; investing in drug courts and mental health interventions for people with substance abuse problems so that people get treatment rather than prison; programs to help people who have been released from prison to get jobs and education
- Addressing economic violence: Making all public universities tuition-free; investing $5.5 billion in a federal youth employment program; pay equity for women; preventing employers from discriminating against applicants based on criminal history; ensuring access to quality affordable child care
In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Martin O’Malley’s campaign also released its own program on racial issues, though focused on criminal justice, but the campaign (among Democrats) that hasn’t yet is Clinton’s. Might the #BlackLivesMatter protests have pushed Sanders toward racial justice specificity that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise? That is the contention of the protesters. However, Sanders had actually described some of the elements of this agenda in July in a speech he gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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Sanders has since reached out to new young activists for his campaign, rather than recruiting an entourage of presidential campaign insiders, notably hiring Symone Sanders (no relation to the senator) as national press secretary after she had contacted the campaign to offer advice; she was previously the youth head of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. It is possible that he might not have necessarily been open to hiring that young African-American woman had it not been for the protesters making the case that the senator had to address racial issues or else join the crowd of politicians making supportive statements on race but offering little or nothing specific to stand out on the issue.
The controversy, nonetheless, comes back to a split in the progressive movement. Some progressives question whether the Black Lives Matter movement has undermined the campaign of the candidate who might be most likely to offer concrete policy responses to the issues they raise. To these critics of the BLM activists, this might be yet another instance of internecine warfare within the left that weakens the candidates the left might otherwise support and hopefully see to victory. Others suggest that it is critically important for BLM activists to shake up the comfortable world of white progressives, including those typically aligned with the Sanders campaign, to make them grasp the seriousness of racial inequities in this country. The #BlackLivesMatter disruptions, in their view, compel politicians like Sanders to address institutional racism in order to adequately respond to the dynamics unleashed after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
So far, the new Sanders platform on racial equity is getting something of a positive response from his past #BlackLivesMatter critics. Protest leader Deray McKesson tweeted that “The ‘violence’ framing in the initial draft of the Sanders Racial Justice platform is powerful. & I look forward to seeing him expand this.” Without retracting its critique of Sanders and his progressive white followers, #BlackLiveMatters made it clear that it wasn’t simply going after Sanders to the exclusion of others. In a statement posted on its website, the organization said:
“At this time, #BlackLivesMatter does not endorse any presidential candidate. Moreover, we are not affiliated with a political party…As stated in our mission, #BlackLivesMatter is an ideological and political intervention; we are not controlled by the same political machine we are attempting to hold accountable. In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for Office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people.”
Six months ago, there was little thought of Bernie Sanders being treated as a serious candidate to challenge Hillary Clinton. Rather, his appearance on the political scene was viewed as means of nudging Hillary Clinton, broadly supported by Wall Street and other moneyed interests, a bit to the left. Now that Sanders is attracting crowds in the tens of thousands while Clinton pursues a Chappaqua strategy of limited exposure (see the NPQ Newswire commentary on Chappaqua’s role in resisting a federal court order to create opportunities for affordable housing—and the silence of the Clintons on their recalcitrant hometown’s policies—here) and tightly controlled events, the Black Lives Matter movement is treating Sanders as a candidate of substance. Others are taking notice. Just last week, he picked up an important labor endorsement from 180,000-member National Nurses United, which rejected the path of the American Federation of Teachers which endorsed Clinton because of concerns about Sanders’s electability. On issues of concern to the Black Lives Matter movement, his pronouncements on or lack of attention to racial inequities in policing, violence in general, and institutional racism in multiple manifestations have political meaning. While there might be a debate about whether it is totally appropriate to target Sanders when Clinton herself might benefit from a #BlackLivesMatter disruption, there is no question that the Black Lives Matter protests have demonstrated the power of direct action and, perhaps, the power of eschewing “respectability politics.”
As an example of the problem of challenging Clinton, Black Lives Matter protesters showed up at a Clinton event in Keene, New Hampshire, last night. Five BLM protesters were excluded by the Secret Service from the main event, a scheduled community forum on substance abuse, but were allowed to sit in an overflow room to watch Clinton’s speech streaming live. After the speech, Clinton met with five of the protesters “behind closed doors,” but neither Clinton nor the protesters described what they discussed. One protester, Daunasia Yancey from the BLM chapter in Boston, said Clinton acknowledged that “she had been part of promoting (policies) that have not worked,” but any specific policies she might have meant weren’t detailed.
“What we got was a Hillary Clinton who was willing to delve into the issues given her platform constraints, but she was not willing to take responsibility for or give much voice to the anti-blackness current. She validated some of the points that we offered, but she didn’t offer many of her own,” said Julius Jones from the Worcester chapter of BLM. The BLM meeting with Clinton lasted 15 minutes, characterized variously as “contentious” and “respectful.”
Taking over a Clinton event like they have disrupted Sanders events will be a challenge for the BLM activists. If they get to challenge her in a more public setting, the substance of the interaction could be interesting. Hillary Clinton was a vocal proponent and campaigner for her husband’s “tough on crime” agenda that helped escalate the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population, though in her campaign she has made reference to the problem of mass incarceration of people for low-level crimes. In her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, she ran an ad that Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said was not just negative but replete with racist sub-messaging. In fact, in the South Carolina primary that year, her husband took the lead in attacking Obama on grounds that appeared to some observers, including South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, as “bizarre” and racially tinged, forcing Bill Clinton to respond to critics, saying, “I am not a racist.”
Hillary Clinton will certainly bring to the discussion her work in the 1970s for Marion Wright Edelman, later the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, as evidence of her civil rights commitment. Critics, however, might raise questions about her long connection with members of the Walton family, one of whom, Alice Walton, has donated generously to her 2016 presidential campaign, and with the Walmart company, on whose board she served for six years, long considered by the left as having supported policies that exacerbate the kind of inequities that the Black Lives Matter movement is confronting. While the BLM activists have finally gotten some visibility with Clinton after two disruptions of Sanders events, the Sanders platform on racial issues may become a benchmark for measuring whatever specifics might emerge on the topic from the Clinton campaign.
At a minimum, regardless of where his candidacy leads, Bernie Sanders is elevating the substance of political dialogue on the stump, getting specific about policies that most candidates treat with vague soft-soap statements, attracting attention from the likes of BLM activists who perceive his candidacy as an important bellwether of how white progressives will address issues of race, and ensuring that his critics and his opponents will “feel the Bern.”