Lesley McFadden, Michael Brown’s mother; Esaw Snipes, Eric Garner’s widow; and Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell, sit on a police-brutality panel at the National Action Network Convention in New York City April 8, 2015.
Aaron J./National Action Network

With the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the Selma, Ala., march and yet another deadly police shooting of an unarmed black man, the National Action Network held its 17th annual convention in New York City.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the civil rights organization, is hosting the four-day gathering, which got under way Wednesday. At the opening session, he laid out an agenda for civil rights activists to impact the public-policy debate as the 2016 presidential election begins to take shape.

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Sharpton wants to focus on expanding civil rights and promoting criminal-justice reform. He highlighted the spate of police killings of unarmed black men since last year’s convention. Among the needed reforms, NAN is pushing for police officers nationwide to wear body cameras.

Every discussion on the first day seemingly referenced some aspect of the shocking video released Tuesday showing a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., shooting and killing an unarmed black man.

For the political panelists, it illustrated the urgency of having every police officer wear a body camera. And for the panelists on police brutality, it showed that little has changed since they lost a family member in a deadly encounter with law enforcement.

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Sharpton said that he received a phone call Saturday from the family of Walter Scott, who was gunned down in the South Carolina incident. “No one understands what the family in North Charleston is going through like these people [the panelists],” Sharpton commented.

The panelists included the parents and fiancee of Sean Bell, the widow and mother of Eric Garner, the mothers of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III’s father. The moderator said that each panelist had lost and given so much. She asked them what the activist community could do for them.

It was an emotional scene. Esaw Snipes, Eric Garner’s widow, broke down in tears and expressed the loneliness she feels. A consensus emerged among the families that they want the world to remember their loved ones’ names.

“Don’t let the names die,” said John Crawford Jr., whose son John Crawford III was fatally shot by police in an Ohio Wal-Mart. “Keep active in this fight.”

On the civil rights front, NAN plans to step up its protest of recent religious-objection legislation, such as those in Arkansas and Indiana, that has sparked outrage. Progressives say that it’s discriminatory against gays and lesbians. “You can’t have civil rights for anybody if there’s no civil rights for everybody,” Sharpton asserted.

Urging the Republican-controlled Senate to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch is also a top priority. Sharpton noted that she would be the first African-American woman to serve in the post, but GOP leaders are stalling her confirmation vote.

The civil rights leader commented on how far the nation has come since Selma but how much remains unchanged.

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that it’s easy for progressives to feel that things are going backward. “But we can’t let despair get to us,” he cautioned in his remarks at the opening session. De Blasio rallied the activists by pointing to policy changes in New York that activists fought to change, such as stop and frisk and arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. “Those changes happened because people mobilized,” he stated.

A panel of elected officials and political activists highlighted a few key issues to promote during the upcoming election cycle. Economic equality was a major recurring theme for most of them. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said that income inequality is at a peak since the Great Depression. He added that the economic recovery has bypassed many on Main Street, with the real unemployment rate well above the national average. Meanwhile, Wall Street triggered the Great Recession and yet continues to operate with inadequate government oversight.

Another major theme the panelists pressed is a commitment to vote. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said that 50 years ago, African Americans risked their lives and walked miles, from Selma to Montgomery, for the right to vote. But in 2015, many voters in his city won’t even walk five minutes to cast a ballot.

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He added that voting during midterm elections is especially critical. Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary and adviser to President Barack Obama, echoed Nutter’s comments. Gibbs said that there are people who “hope you miss” casting a ballot in the years between presidential elections.  

The convention continues Thursday with a range of issues, including housing and health disparity. One of the highlights will be a male panel on the White House’s initiative My Brother’s Keeper to empower boys and young men of color.

Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.