One message is loud, brash and crystal clear about the 2016 race for the White House.
No candidate — Democrat or Republican — will escape the in-your-face challenge of the Black Lives Matter activists. Nor should they.
Self-described socialist and ascendant Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was all but shunted off a stage in Seattle. Two women snatched the podium and led a four-and-a-half-minute tribute to Ferguson’s Michael Brown, whose death birthed the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
Good for Black Lives Matter. They are vehement and unapologetic, and they’re only getting warmed up. They’ve commandeered microphones and media coverage and ratcheted up tension among some candidates’ more loyal supporters — even people who believe themselves to be race progressives but would just as soon this messy business of black disillusion and anger take a backseat to fundraisers and more genteel campaigning.
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These disrupters are necessary. And I say that while swallowing hard as one who, from a standpoint of personal comfort, prefers a far more civil approach.
But this is not about my comfort and feelings, or those of Bernie Sanders and his legions of followers. This is about a longstanding and persistent pattern of injustice in this country — racially motivated violence by agents of law enforcement — and what must be done to bring it to an end.
Black Lives Matter is challenging candidates to articulate just what they would do to end the shooting deaths of unarmed black people by police. Sanders has responded, giving "racial justice" a prominent spot on the issues agenda on his campaign website.
"We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color," the website declares. "That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic." It goes on to list policy proposals meant to address each aspect. Whether they pass muster with activists remains to be seen, but clearly Sanders has gotten the message.
Will other candidates get it, especially Republicans?
Notably, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP candidate, didn’t mince words when asked about the Black Lives Matters movement in a Fox News interview. He acknowledged the disparity of experience with law enforcement between whites and blacks and bemoaned the mistrust between young black men and police. "We do need to face this," he said, before pitching a solution for a related but essentially different problem: keeping young first-time offenders from being marked with a criminal record for life.
Other GOP candidates have subverted the conversation by missing the point. Asked about Black Lives Matter, Ben Carson launched into a diatribe about black-on-black murder rates and broken homes in the African-American community. Another dodge, articulated by Carly Fiorina, is to blame liberals. "Black lives have been diminished under Democratic policies," she told Fox News.
The baseline Republican response to the issue is perhaps best seen in the response when Black Lives Matter showed up at a Jeb Bush rally in North Las Vegas, Nev. As activists chanted their signature slogan, they were met by Bush supporters shouting back, "White lives matter."
In other words, your concerns mean nothing. All those statistics that show unarmed blacks are disproportionately more often killed by police than unarmed whites; all the videos we’ve seen of heedless, unjustified shootings; the evidence that the police department of Ferguson actively oppressed the black population and was tasked with raising revenue for the city government by issuing citations: So what?
Here’s the point: Historically in America, black lives have mattered less. Taking their lives, not to mention their property and their labor, was a white prerogative in the time of slavery and Jim Crow. That is no longer the case, we want to believe, but there seems to be a troubling exception for the police.
It took blood, dash cam video and taking to the streets to make America see it, and more people are waking up. And it ought to be noted, that many of these activists are white people and they aren’t all millennials.
That’s a broad base that the Democratic Party has long considered to be its own — minorities, especially black people, and liberal voters. Republicans cannot win the White House unless some of those voters stay home or change their traditional voting patterns.
Black Lives Matter activists know this, and that’s why they targeted the likes of Bernie Sanders and Maryland ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley first. Look for them to continue. And don’t complain. African-Americans have been among the most loyal members of the Democratic Party base, and they deserve to have their interests advanced by the party.
Candidates who don’t run from the activists or belittle their concerns just might win some praise for admitting that the anger and disappointment endemic in so many black communities is justified. And, more importantly, they might end up doing the right thing.