Surprisingly, one of the most vocal critics of Bernie Sander’s unforeseen rise in the race for the White House is not from the right – though some Republicans unsurprisingly have started throwing the derogatory “socialist”-label around.
Rather, criticism has been directed from Black Lives Matter, an loosely-connected and decentralized activist organization created in protest to the recent exposure of deaths of African-Americans by armed police, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. They’ve called for massive changes in a criminal justice system that they believe is racially-biased, pointing to a disproportionate black population of inmates as a result of mass incarceration policies and the “War on Drugs,” calling for fundamental changes in American society to combat racism.
BLM activists disrupted both Sanders’ and Martin O’Malley’s speeches at the progressively-minded Netroots Nation town hall conference earlier in July and shocked many when two activists took the stage and microphone away from Sanders at a rally in support of Social Security on August 8th in Seattle.
After shouting repeatedly to demanding the opportunity to speak on the mic or they’ll “shut down” the event, the Sanders campaign allowed them to speak. The two ladies went on to describe the Seattle audience as “racist” and supporting “white supremacist liberalism.”
So why did two supporters of BLM decide to disrupt the campaign of Bernie Sanders?
Sanders, a man who was arrested as a college student for protesting segregation at the University of Chicago campus, marched on Washington to hear Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” has routinely defended the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has opposed the “War on Drugs” for the duration of his political career and currently holds a 100% rating from the NAACP, is being protested by some members of Black Lives Matters. To be fair, Black Lives Matter has targeted several other candidates, from Hillary Clinton to Jeb Bush to Martin O’Malley, but most of their efforts seem to be directed at Sanders.
Though there is no clear or defined reason why Bernie Sanders has earned the contempt of Black Lives Matter, but from an observational standpoint, I believe he has been the target for two reasons: the conflict within the liberal or Democratic base between racial justice activists and economic progressives and the openness of the Sanders campaign.
As Dara Lind of Vox.com noted, there has always been tension within the Democratic Party between those pushing for economic equality and those pushing for racial equality. Not to say that the two groups don’t overlap or that they are at odds with each other. Rather, many within the Democratic Party or on the liberal end of the spectrum that are supportive of increased social welfare and economic progressivism have been viewed by certain racial equality activists as acquiescent to issues like racial movements.
The Sanders campaign from the beginning has been one focused on economic issues, targeting income inequality, campaign finance reform, tuition-free college education, increasing the minimum wage, expanding Medicare, and more. Throughout the early stages of the campaign, Sanders has framed many of the discussions on race in economic terms, and while Bernie’s proposition to fight the closing wealth gap has been described as “single most effective thing that any politician could do to help advance the cause of ending structural racism in America,” he still hadn’t laid out a concrete plan discussing criminal justice reform, targeting of African-Americans by police, or racial discrimination in the workplace. And in Sanders’ defense, being only a few months into the Presidential campaign, no candidate is going to have a fully-detailed policy plan on every single major issue.
And in the defense of Black Lives Matter, it is easy to understand their frustration. With the fervor surrounding Bernie’s campaign as of late, along with becoming the darling of progressives and youth, Bernie appears as the best candidate who would most align with their goals, as his previous record would warrant. Yet, his focus thus far has been on economic issues.
So the Black Lives Matter group felt it necessary to protest the Sanders campaign in order to create awareness of their issue. Just like how any lobbyist would want a politician to be made aware of an issue and act on said issue they represent, so would Black Lives Matter.
Since candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush generally hold closed-door town hall meetings to prevent any protests (though it hasn’t always worked for Jeb), there is little opportunity for Black Lives Matter to get their voices heard aside from having private meetings with candidates, as they’ve done with Hillary. Bernie, however, speaks at many open-air venues with little security, which is what gave the two Black Lives Matters their opportunity to steal the stage.
And when they did take the stage, Sanders didn’t have security called on them, but rather let them speak and voice their opinions, despite the questionable appropriateness of their tactics.
And he listened.
Just several days following the event in Seattle, the Sanders campaign released a comprehensive platform addressing racial justice. In which he addressed the four main types of violence Sanders believes is targeting minorities: physical, political, legal, and economic. Some of the highlights of the platform consisted of:
- Demilitarize police forces, invest in community policing and body cameras for law enforcement
- Require police to provide public reports on all police shootings and deaths, train police to deescalate confrontations with those having mental illnesses
- Allow felonies who have served their sentences to vote again, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Make Election Day a federal holiday and automatically register all American citizens over 18
- Ban “for-profit” prisons, invest in more education and job training programs for those in prison
- End the costly “War on Drugs” and invest in treatment instead of jail time for those with substance abuse problems
- Make public universities tuition free, so all children, regardless of race and income can have a fair shot to attend college
- Invest in a federally-funded youth employment programs in inner-cities
The platform has received widespread acclaim. Cornel West, one of the most prominent African-American intellectuals and former Professor of African American Studies, has endorsed Bernie Sanders, calling his vision, “prophetic.” DeRay McKesson, one of the leading voices of Black Lives Matter and, expressed his approval of the new platform as well.
When the Black Lives Matter protest broke, many acted as though it would be the downfall of the Sanders campaign. Bernie 2016 was viewed as fractured and disorganized. Donald Trump called Sanders “weak” for allowing the activists speak, saying, “That showed such weakness, the way he was taken away by two young women — the microphone. They just took the whole place over.” He stated that any such debacle would never happen at his events, suggesting that he might even “do the fighting.”
Rather, the Sanders campaign has continued to grow. Along with praise for his platform and garnering the endorsement of the largest nurses union in the nation, Sanders continued on his tour on the West Coast, drawing 15,000 in Seattle, 28,000 in Portland, and 27,500 in Los Angeles.
The Sanders campaign refuses to disappear and simply keeps growing with each passing day.
And why? Part of the secret rests in the handling of the Black Lives Matter protest. The protest showed that while other candidates have generally been dismissive of any criticism, Sanders actually listens to his critics and addresses their concerns, like any politician should with his constituents.
Photo Credit to Elaine Thompson / AP Photo / Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library / CNN / Twitter