No, Bernie Sanders isn't doing enough: Black Lives Matter deserves much more from the Democratic Party

The Vermont senator has a laudable history of supporting civil rights, but this moment in history calls for more

By Lawrence Brown

Published August 11, 2015 7:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Lynne Sladky/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Lynne Sladky/Carolyn Kaster)

Over this past weekend, two #BlackLivesMatter activists (Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Johnson) shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seatttle. As he did at Netroots earlier this summer, Sanders handled the disruption poorly. On Saturday, Sen. Sanders had come to Seattle to talk about Social Security and Medicare on the weekend of the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He arrived in the city at a time when the Seattle Police Department itself is a part of a current settlement to “eliminate unconstitutional policing” with the U.S. Department of Justice due to Seattle’s civil rights violations and excessive use of force against Seattle’s communities of color.

Sanders approached the microphone ready to address a massive crowd on the topic of Social Security (a federal program designed to protect Americans over the age of 65 from destitution) and Medicare (an entitlement program providing health insurance for seniors). He chose this topic in an era where we have seen Tamir Rice gunned down by police at the age of 12, Aiyana Stanley-Jones shot down by police at the age of 7, and Sandra Bland wrestled on the ground by an officer and found dead in a Texas jail cell at the age of 28.

For the defining civil rights issue of our day—whether or not Black, Indigenous, Latino, or other citizens of color in the United States will be afforded equal protection under the law at the hands of law enforcement—Senator Sanders was seemingly oblivious to the ultimate irony of the message he came to deliver. Without swift and radical change in the way white police officers approach and treat Black people during encounters, the Black victims of the police use of excessive force will not live make it to the age of 65 and therefore are denied via death the luxury of Social Security.

On Sunday, however, the Sanders campaign released a racial justice platform to address many of the demands of the #BlackLivesMatter organization and the larger Black Freedom Movement. On that same night, police in Ferguson shot three more protesters under circumstances that are still in question, leaving Michael Brown’s friend (Tyrone Harris Jr.) critically injured. While a platform for addressing #BlackLivesMatter’s concerns and the Black Freedom Movement is noteworthy, a lifeless platform does little to address the vigorous life-and-death struggle for equal justice taking place on the streets across America right now.

Monday afternoon saw #BlackLivesMatters protestors take to the streets and the halls of power in Ferguson—peaceably assembling at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse chanting “DOJ, do your job!”—when the Ferguson Police Department began arresting the protesters en masse. As the situation unfolded on Twitter, it occurred to #BlackLivesMatter activists that Democrats such as Governor Jay Nixon and President Barack Obama should be called upon to bring in the National Guard to protect the rights of the #BlackLivesMatter protestors to peaceably assemble.

This call on Twitter was extended beyond current office holders to the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders. Outside of attempts to pressure Nixon and Obama, the call most centrally was addressed to Sanders, as he is the one who lays claim to boldly seeking a renewal of America by stymieing the influence of powerful corporate interests and by leveling the economic playing field. Sanders is the one who has laudable experience marching with Dr. King and working to desegregate housing in Chicago. Sanders is the one who has received the most visible confrontation by #BlackLivesMatters activists precisely because activists sense that he is candidate most likely to lift up their concerns in his campaign and can provide a boost to the movement in the form of a presidential crusader for both racial and economic justice.

In essence, Sanders has the opportunity to earn the support of the heart of the Democratic Party.

In the search for the candidate who will lead the Republican Party to victory in 2016, there is a battle for the heart of the GOP, collectively comprised of groups such as the Tea Party, the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Ku Klux Klan as shown recently in South Carolina. The Tea Party succeeded in 2010 in forcing the Republican Party to the right to such a degree that it has left current GOP presidential candidates flummoxed and befuddled at the success of the likes of Donald Trump.

But Trump’s current success is no mystery. His current success is simply a reflection of electoral politics where candidates must understand their constituents in order to achieve victory. Donald Trump understands that the strongest activists on the right are utterly fed up with delicate posturing, pandering and political correctness. They are tired of "immigrants taking their country" and they "want their country back." They want straight talk without apology, a daring desperado who needs no do-overs; a vacuous, verbal gunslinger who will shoot vicious sentiments first and ask questions later. By presenting GOP voters with these qualities, Trump is leading the field.

Yet Democrats currently have no such candidate reading the mood of the heart of their electorate. As the Democratic Party is attempting to win the White House in 2016, an urgent crisis is boiling over in the Black community, leading to one simple question: Can we live? Can we live and return home alive after a routine traffic stop or even in the midst of committing a crime? Are we to be met with lethal force by a judge, jury, and executioner behind a badge endowed with the power of the State? Will we die in jail over a weekend when we can’t make bond and have the world be told that we committed suicide? Must we tweet preemptively:

"#IfIDieinPoliceCustody I will not commit suicide, so don’t you dare believe them?"

The very essence of politics, for anyone who is running for public office, is to go out and win the support of voters. No votes are presumed to be given and none should be asked for without a candidate clearly telling each constituency directly and boldly why that group should support them as a candidate. In essence, for better or worse, a candidate must give at least 50 percent of the people what they want.

Demands have been issued to the current major Democratic presidential candidates to support the call to Nixon & Obama to do what President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, did in September 1957, when Southern politicians defended segregated Southern schools as a way of life and resisted the desegregation decree handed down by the Supreme Court. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard to Southern states and sent the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to enforce the court’s decree as local police and city officials maintained their allegiance to white supremacy and remained committed to words of Alabama Gov. George Wallace: Segregation forever. As President Eisenhower was already in his second term, he did not need to concern himself with lost votes in a future election. President Obama is in a similar position, and now is the time for him to act to enforce the law of the land.

Now is also the time for a candidate such as Bernie Sanders to move beyond crafting a platform statement to proclaiming and supporting bold action—demand that Gov. Jay Nixon and President Obama deploy the National Guard to Ferguson, with the explicit mission to protect the rights of #BlackLivesMatter protestors to peaceably assemble. These protestors must be afforded the right to peaceably demonstrate against the policies and practices of the Ferguson police force, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In the ongoing Black Freedom Movement that is taking place in front of our very eyes, now is the time for the Democratic Party to move to protect the lives of its citizens. Now is the time to do what what is right and win the hearts of voters who wish to attain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America.

Lawrence Brown

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