Black Lives Matter protesters have been working to feed their message of racial justice to 2016 presidential candidates at campaign events by interrupting speeches and calling on candidates to publicly state how they plan to address institutional racism in the United States.
Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley got their first taste in July. Then, Sanders got a second on Saturday. Hillary Clinton took hers in a to-go bag on Tuesday. And Jeb Bush, the first Republican presidential candidate to be served, got his taste on Wednesday.
In Seattle on Saturday, two women from the local Black Lives Matter chapter jumped onstage as Sanders began to speak at an event marking the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Protester Marissa Johnson took the microphone, refusing to return it to an event organizer, exclaiming to the candidate, “Bernie, you were confronted at Netroots by black women,” and added, “You have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like O’Malley did.”
The largely white crowd was not happy, especially since Sanders left the stage and did not return. The protesters also called for a 4.5-minute moment of silence to recognize the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown.
The Black Lives Matter movement began to draw national attention after the killing of Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It gathered momentum from local and national protests that followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, as well as the killing of several other unarmed people of color by police all across the country.
In an MSNBC interview on Tuesday, Johnson said, “Black people are in a state of emergency,” and demanded explicit policy positions to address racism from lawmakers. She also explained why the confrontational protest tactic of interrupting campaign speeches has mostly targeted Democratic presidential candidates over Republicans.
“We really need to put pressure on people who claim that they care about black lives,” she said.
If they do not acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement or offer policies that will address white supremacist violence in U.S. institutions, “presidential candidates should expect to be shut down and confronted every step along the way of this presidential campaign,” Black Lives Matter Seattle members said in a statement posted to Facebook. On the one-year anniversary of the death of Brown, the group added, “We honor Black lives lost by doing the unthinkable, the unapologetic, and the unrespectable.”
Responses have varied from the Democratic candidates who have been pressured by Black Lives Matter protesters in recent weeks. In the most direct and arguably comprehensive response, Sanders released a racial justice policy platform on his website Sunday, highlighting the “four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic,” and how he would address this violence against people of color if he were elected president. Sanders’ campaign also recently hired Symone Sanders, a young black woman and national youth chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, as his national press secretary.
At an Urban League conference on July 31, Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley each invoked the Black Lives Matter movement in their remarks. The Republican candidates present, Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is black, did not.
Some black legislators have defended the protesters’ strategy as a nonviolent, albeit disruptive means to force the issue of racial injustice into candidates’ political agendas.
Protesters have said their goal is to hold candidates accountable and pressure them to articulate exactly how they would address white supremacy and racism in education, housing, and the criminal legal system, and to reconcile that agenda with their past policy history.
According to some critics, Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has a dubious record on race and policing. While mayor of Baltimore, he was a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing that emphasizes the enforcement of relatively small offenses and typically ends up targeting people of color.
After being interrupted at the Netroots conference in July, the Democratic candidate released a criminal justice reform platform.
The Democratic frontrunner, Clinton, thanks to her Secret Service security team, avoided being interrupted during a campaign speech on Tuesday. Following the event, she spoke with Black Lives Matter activists privately, who said they had recorded the conversation and planned to release a copy of it.
Some Bush supporters chanted “All Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter protesters, and “[t]wo women — a protester and a Bush supporter — stood a few feet from the candidate with their middle fingers extended in each other’s faces,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Bush reportedly met with Black Lives Matter activists earlier and “discussed criminal justice reform and barriers to upward mobility.”
In a statement released Sunday, following the second interruption of Sanders, Black Lives Matter’s national organization said it has not endorsed any presidential candidate, and is not affiliated with a political party.
“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. We embrace a diversity of tactics. We are a decentralized network aiming to build the leadership and power of black people,” the statement says.
“We will continue to hold politicians and political parties accountable for their policies and platforms. We will also continue to demand the intentional dismantling of structural racism.”
Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim via Flickr