At the Presidential Town Hall this weekend at Netroots Nation 2015, the largest annual gathering of liberal activists in America, there was a moment of two parallel universes operating simultaneously, signifying the cleavages between racial and economic justice on the progressive left. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was moving through his main points about economic inequality and the hijacking of the nation by big money, pointing out statistical analyses on things like student debt and the gains of the one percent. (This came after former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, the other candidate at the event, had already left the stage). At the same time, on the floor among the crowd, #BlackLivesMatter protesters marched and chanted, “Say her name.” The names of the black women who have died in police custody were never mentioned from the stage.
This was the most uncomfortable political moment in the history of a conference that has had many of them over the years. An immigrant rights protester disrupted Vice President Joe Biden last year; anti-surveillance activists accosted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi two years ago; antiwar and LGBTQ activists and many others have historically made life difficult for politicians at Netroots, from former President Bill Clinton on down. But more than anything, the clash laid bare a massive divide between a significant movement in American politics and those who would lead the country and theoretically carry their mantle.
Over the years, Netroots Nation itself, a conference originated in 2006 among liberal bloggers and commenters at the website Daily Kos, has seen a transformation, from a gathering of politics nerds with precise information about Congressional races to a diverse group of movement organizers. The conference came to Phoenix to feature the struggles of undocumented immigrants, showing white progressives what brown people have to go through every day.
Movement-based politics helped light the fire for the demonstration at the Presidential town hall, which was specifically designed to confront the powerful and leave them no escape route. “That was my idea was to have them respond in real time,” said Ashley Yeats, a St. Louis-based #BlackLivesMatter organizer who helped plan the protest with the Dream Defenders and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). “Because too often we do actions, and people get time to go back and sit for a minute. I was, like, ‘No, let’s have our debate. What would a black debate look like?’”
The planned protest began midway through O’Malley’s remarks, the first of the two candidates to speak. Protesters stormed toward the stage and shouted out the names of Sandra Bland and other black women who have died in police custody, imploring the candidates to address them. Tia Oso, an Arizona-based activist with BAJI, was given a mic and hopped on stage next to O’Malley and town hall moderator Jose Antonio Vargas. In her remarks, she expressed her frustration with structural racism and white supremacy. The other protesters did various call-and-response chants from the floor. “Wait a second, breathe!” Vargas pleaded. “We can’t breathe!” replied the protesters, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old Staten Island man killed by a police chokehold one year ago Friday.
O’Malley had difficulty with the question of police abuse even before the protest. Vargas pressed O’Malley early in the town hall, calling him the “godfather of mass incarceration.” O’Malley gave a prepared response that included downplaying the protests against him during his presidential announcement—it was only three or four people and most of them were white, O’Malley said—and taking credit for civilian review boards and other reforms from his time as Baltimore mayor. The demonstrators did not agree. “Did you hear him talking about all the things that he did in Baltimore?” Oso asked when I spoke to her after the town hall. “When he said that, one of the girls I was with was, like, ‘Rush the stage.’ I said, ‘OK, wait!’”
O’Malley waited politely amid the disruption, which shut down the town hall for about 15 minutes. When he finally was able to respond, he went back to the few specific policies from his days as Baltimore’s mayor. “He was talking about past actions that he was taking a lot of credit for that actually he did not push for,” Yeats told me afterward. O’Malley closed with the tone-deaf comment, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.” The activists wanting to center the black experience and focus on the state of emergency in their communities abhorred it, booing him loudly.
Sanders did even worse. Instead of expressing solidarity with the protesters, he talked about his pet issue—economics. He wasn’t “in the room,” and didn’t alter his pitch based on what was happening. “What Sanders should have done, when they said ‘Sandra Bland,’ you say ‘Sandra Bland!’” said political analyst and Blue Nation Review contributor Goldie Taylor, claiming that a simple show of empathy would have disarmed the protest. "He would have shut down the shutdown!"
Artist and activist Janna Zinzi, who was present in the crowd listening to Sanders, agreed. “Can you imagine how the conversation and energy in the room could have changed if he just stopped and said, ‘I'm listening?’ That would have given the other white people the message that maybe something legitimate is being communicated and that they should actually listen, too. That would have showed real leadership and basic humanity.”
But Sanders couldn’t get past his mindset: that if you fix economic inequality in America, social justice will naturally follow. Historical experience doesn’t show this; Bland was an educated black woman went to Texas for a job interview and three days later, was found dead in her jail cell. Countries in Europe with high degrees of state spending to reduce inequality continue to have racially motivated problems with immigrant communities. The critique doesn’t hold.
When he didn’t get the response he wanted, Sanders became frustrated. “I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity,” he said, alluding to his time as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and his marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even so, he pivoted away from every criminal justice questions by returning to economics. The protesters were not appeased. “I said when he came out, he’s going to say I marched with your daddy and your mama, that’s what he wants to talk about,” said Oso. “But what are you going to do? You want to be the president right now. I don’t want to hear about what you did!”
What the protesters wanted was a sign that their issues were being heard and enacted into policy. “We’re in Arizona, how would you get to Oakland, California?” Yeats asked me. “You would Mapquest it, right?” Right. “That’s what we need from them is a map that’s going to lead out of the oppression, the systemic oppression,” she continued. “We don’t need to hear, we need it. We know that. A hungry person knows they need food. What is your plan to get out of this?”
Obviously, hearing Sanders’s pitch—mentioning job creation and community health centers and H1-B visa policies—wasn’t enough to feed the activists. “They claim that they represent all of America, but then you get up there and you see when they’re pressured on issues that are specifically black they fumble,” Yeats said.
Dr. Jason Johnson, a Hiram College political science professor, watched the protest from the Netroots Nation crowd. “Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders both blew a huge opportunity this afternoon,” he said. “Their inability to talk organically to a completely predictable protest by #BlackLivesMatter is a huge Achilles heel for the Dems.”
In a statement, Netroots Nation Executive Director Raven Brooks stood with the protesters. “Although we wish the candidates had more time to respond to the issues, what happened today is reflective of an urgent moment that America is facing today,” Brooks said. Next year’s conference will take place in St. Louis, close to Ferguson, and local leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement will be directly engaged, Brooks added. “We plan to work with activists there just as we did in Phoenix, to amplify issues like racial profiling and police brutality in a major way.”
The reaction of the candidates after the protest was varied and significant. O’Malley spent the entire day sitting with activists, publicly apologizing for his “white/all lives matter” remarks in an interview with This Week in Blackness and generally atoning for his performance. Sanders canceled all his events, including meetings with black and brown activists. At his evening speech before 11,000 in the same convention center, he did obliquely address the issue, using practiced lines he has said in the past but with a little more depth. “If any police officer breaks the law, that officer must be held accountable,” Sanders said. On Sunday, he uttered Bland's name at a rally in Dallas. But the no-shows earlier in the day just exacerbated the problem.
The tragedy is that Sanders and the protesters probably agree on nearly every issue, but they don’t have a language to talk to each other about it. As a result, the anger builds and the communication breaks down. This is fixable, but those who want to lead a progressive movement need to understand that taking the crisis in black communities for granted won’t work with this new generation of organizers. That goes the same for Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t in attendance at Netroots Nation this year. But as the campaign progresses, activists will undoubtedly attempt to make her uncomfortable until they get the answers they seek. As Oso said, “Your agenda needs to be correct, and if it’s not correct, we’re going to continue to have problems.”
Additional reporting by Jamil Smith.