SINCE BERNIE SANDERS’ SPEAKING EVENT was taken over by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists in Seattle on August 8th, the internet has erupted with meaningful analyses and conversations about activist tactics and the shortcomings of white progressives. Two weeks later, there’s a new buzz over Sanders’ response to the movement.
Some writers and pundits are getting hung up on a response that could obscure a much more important one. Headline after headline quotes Sanders from a Meet the Press interview stating that he doesn’t feel a need to apologize to BLM activists. Shortly after the event in Seattle, Sanders campaign staffer Marcus Ferrell sent out an email to key members of BLM asking to arrange a formal meeting, in which he states, “I apologize it took our campaign so long to officially reach out.” Sanders distanced himself from the statement, saying the email was sent out without his knowledge.
Whether or not Sanders wants to apologize for something seems to me a rather trivial tidbit in comparison to the substantive way in which he has responded to the calls of BLM activists. Sanders touts a pristine record on civil rights, beginning with the fight for desegregation as a college student in the ’60s and extending to a voting record that has earned him near-perfect ratings from the ACLU and NAACP. Still, he wasn’t immediate on the uptake concerning the issues BLM is seeking to address. He has been quick in the recent past to reduce the issue of racial injustice to economic injustice, an approach that has failed to acknowledge other systemic forms of oppression impacting the black community – most notably in this case, state violence and the devaluation of black lives.
But Sanders’ scope of racial injustice has expanded and evolved since the BLM community has made its message heard. The very day after the Seattle rally takeover, the Sanders campaign published its platform for addressing racial injustice. Departing from a myopic focus on economic inequality, Sanders identifies four types of systemic violence perpetrated against the black community: physical, political, legal, and economic. (The choice to frame these as forms of violence is noteworthy.)
Sanders placed the issue of physical violence at the very beginning of his platform, starting the section off with eight names of black men and women recently killed by police officers or who died under suspicious circumstances while in custody. He proposes 10 actions to combat state violence against black individuals, including the development of a new federal police training program with input from BLM activists, tougher rules about allowable use of force, requiring body cameras to be worn by law enforcement officials, tougher investigation and prosecution of law enforcement officials who break the law, and greater transparency concerning deaths that take place at the hands of police or while a person is in custody.
The platform goes on to discuss issues of voter disenfranchisement that disproportionately impact minority communities, racist policies wrapped up with the “War on Drugs” that have led to mass incarceration of black individuals, and a variety of ways in which our education system fails minority students.
In all, Sanders’ racial justice platform contains 28 actionable steps for addressing a breadth of issues impacting the black community.
In addition to developing his platform, Sanders is planning to meet with prominent BLM activist DeRay Mckesson to discuss “enhancements” to the platform. The two men connected over Twitter on August 17th.
To date, only one other presidential hopeful has released an official platform on racial justice issues – Martin O’Malley, former Democratic governor of Maryland. His platform focuses on criminal justice reform, from cutting down on police violence to increasing the rehabilitative aspect of prisons to improving education. O’Malley was interrupted by BLM activists along with Sanders at the Netroots Nation forum in Phoenix in July.
While Hillary Clinton has paid lip service to the importance of addressing mass incarceration and police violence, she has not (yet, anyway) released a specific platform for promoting racial justice. A recent meeting she had with BLM activists left them understandably underwhelmed by her responses to their questions, and most notably by her unwillingness to address the fact that she has been affiliated with policies in the past, like mass incarceration, that have negatively impacted the black community.
Sanders announced on the same day as the Seattle rally that he has hired a young black criminal justice advocate, Symone Sanders (no relation), as his national press secretary. Her input has helped broaden Bernie Sanders’ understanding of racial inequality beyond economic factors.
When a campaigning politician makes sudden changes to his or her platform in response to protests, it’s often reasonable to suspect that political expediency is more at the root of these changes than a genuine desire and willingness to address the concerns of the protesters. This kind of about-face can cause suspicion that leads to questioning the rigor with which a politician will pursue addressing those concerns in office. Yes, Sanders is a politician; yes, he is campaigning. But he has spent 34 years in politics fighting for people’s rights and dignity, which instills trust that he is working to better understand the issues facing the black community so that he may develop policies that actually address them. Unlike the empty promises on campaign trails we’ve grown accustomed to, we have reason to believe Sanders will do the work he says he will.
Image Credit: LA Progressive