The unexpected happened at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix on Saturday, when Black police brutality activists interrupted Democratic presidential candidates former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Maryland) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) at a town hall meeting. For the two candidates—who were caught off guard and perhaps expected an easier time with what would seem to be a natural constituency—it was both an embarrassment for them and a defining moment for a movement.
The candidates’ forum, which was moderated by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, was interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter activists, led by Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, who climbed onto the stage and grabbed the mic.
“We are going to hold this space. We are going to acknowledge the names of Black women who have died in police custody. And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you… As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle—not reform, not make progress—but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”
“Yes,” replied O’Malley, who was interrupted by demonstrators reciting the names of Black women who died in police custody. “My people came here as immigrants from Ireland,” O’Malley said to Oso at one point.
The protesters shouted slogans such as “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” and “If I die in police in custody!” to O’Malley.
“I think all of us as Americans have a responsibility to recognize the pain and the grief throughout our country from all of the lives that have been lost to violence, whether that’s violence at the hands at the police or whether that’s violence at the hands of civilians,” O’Malley said, before being interrupted again.
“Don’t generalize this s***!” one person responded.
As CNN reported, after promising to issue a criminal justice reform plan—and after discussing changes he would make regarding police brutality complaints, civilian review boards and requiring police departments to maintain data on police shootings—O’Malley said, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.”
Ultimately, he was forced off the stage, clapping and saying “Black lives matter, Black lives matter, Black lives matter,” as the Guardian reported.
In an interview with This Week In Blackness, the former Maryland governor apologized, saying, “That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect.” He added, “I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”
As Bloomberg noted, Hillary Clinton, who did not attend Netroots, found herself in a similar situation in June when she said “all lives matter” at an event at a Black church near Ferguson, Mo.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders began his planned remarks at the town hall by speaking about economic and media-related issues, while being interrupted by chants of “Black lives matter.”
“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” Sanders said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
“Black people are dying in this country because we have a criminal justice system which is out of control, a system in which over 50 percent of young African-American kids are unemployed,” Sanders said. “It is estimated that a Black baby born today has a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system.”
While Sanders did address the protesters’ questions, he managed to transition back to economic issues. After the confrontational meeting, Sanders cancelled his events, including those with groups of color.
“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 in The New Republic. “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!”
Ashley Yeats, a St. Louis-based #BlackLivesMatter organizer, had the idea to confront the candidates in real time.
“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,” she said.
A nascent movement that grew out of responses to the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other Black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, #BlackLivesMatter combines technology and direct action with a revolutionary spirit. This 21st century movement connects the dots among the various incidents involving the murders of Black people, using social media—which is disproportionately utilized by people of color—to spread the word in a manner not possible in the Civil Rights Movement of a prior generation. And unlike the past, this new struggle is localized and absent the traditional centralized, top-down, messianic leadership structure.
“The Cyber Left is about flattening hierarchies, flattening governance processes, combined with using the logic of social networks for deep consensus building,” according to Todd Wolfson, the author of Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left.
This new group of emerging activists is making politicians feel uncomfortable, and this is the point. With Netroots as a preview of what is to come in the 2016 election season, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has inserted itself into politics with a sense of urgency and a call to action, pressuring politicians who want the Black vote to make the changes the community demands.
With Barack Obama no longer on the ballot, white liberals will find themselves in an uphill battle to win over the Black vote. Lacking experience with Black lives and the needs and concerns of Black people, and likely knowing few Black people, white politicians, including white liberals and progressives, have no frame of reference when it comes to relating to Black people on their terms. It is not enough to invoke economic reform and think that the racial problems will take care of themselves, or say that “all lives matter” and change the subject away from the pressing concerns of Black lives.
The circumstances in which Black America finds itself in 2015 are no less urgent than in decades passed, as we are in a state of emergency in all aspects of society and by every measure. Yet, different times require different methods. Veteran civil rights activists have called upon this new generation to translate their protest into political action and demand that our agenda is addressed, and #BlackLivesMatter has responded.