How Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley Botched #BlackLivesMatter

Instead of getting frustrated and, in O’Malley’s case, saying “White lives matter,” presidential wannabes O’Malley and Sanders should have been much more politically savvy when they were confronted by #BlackLivesMatter activists at Netroots Nation.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses hecklers and supporters at the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall July 18, 2015, in Phoenix.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses hecklers and supporters at the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall July 18, 2015, in Phoenix. Charlie Leight/Getty Images

Being a politician is a tough job because unless you’re in a dictatorship, of royalty or Dr. Doom, you actually have to deal with dissent, disagreement and protests from the people you rule. Is it fun? Of course not, but just about every elected official in America, right or left, has to deal with it. President Barack Obama got heckled by an undocumented transgender woman in his own house. Somebody threw a shoe at George W. Bush. And dozens of members of Congress got screamed at during the town halls leading up to the passage of Obamacare. 

However, dealing with protesters and hecklers is part of the job, a job that apparently Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O’Malley are woefully unprepared for, based on their inept reactions to #BlackLivesMatter protests during the Netroots Nation conference last week.

Political hindsight is 20-20, but there were about a half-dozen ways each candidate could have handled last week’s events better than he did. Perhaps if we use the wayback machine, we can point out to both Sanders and O’Malley how they should have handled things last week and how to interact with #BlackLivesMatter protests in the future.

Name: Martin O’Malley

Résumé: Former governor of Maryland and former mayor of Baltimore

Biggest mistake: Forgetting where he came from

What happened: Martin O’Malley was onstage in the Phoenix Convention Center at Netroots Nation, taking questions from Jose Antonio Vargas, and doing reasonably well, when the #BlackLivesMatter protesters began chanting and marching toward the stage. They immediately began chanting, “Say her name,” and asking that O’Malley repeat the names of Rekia Boyd, Tanesha Anderson and Sandra Bland, unarmed black women who have died at the hands of police or in police custody over the last two years, and for whom justice is still sought. Then, once protest leader Tia Oso was invited onstage, she asked what O’Malley planned to do to dismantle institutional racism and address police violence against African Americans.

O’Malley looked annoyed initially, but once Oso returned to the crowd, the former governor rattled off a list of policy accomplishments that dwarfed those of any of his fellow Democratic candidates. As mayor of Baltimore, he restored voting rights to 42,000 convicted felons. He also empowered citizen-review boards by police and said that they should be funded to allow for independent detectives to investigate officers. O’Malley topped off his answers by pointing out that he’d ended the death penalty in Maryland and that he was the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, who was rolling out a criminal-justice package during the campaign. But when a protester interrupted him, O’Malley responded somewhat snidely, “Black lives matter … all lives matter … and white lives matter.” At that point, even white liberals in the audience were clutching their pearls.

What he should have done: You can give O’Malley a little bit of a pass because he was caught by surprise by the protests. But that’s a very small pass. How did a man elected mayor twice in Baltimore, one of the blackest cities in America, somehow remain so completely incapable of talking to black people? It is hard to believe that in the hundreds of town halls, church-basement meetings and cookouts that O’Malley has gone to in his political career that he never faced a protester or a heckler before.