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

“I don’t know if I will do the fighting myself or other people will.”

That’s what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump threatened Tuesday at a press conference. He was talking about not allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to interrupt him at any forum. But while Trump talks hypothetical encounters with the burgeoning racial-justice movement, his compatriots on the Democratic side are dealing with the real thing.


Protesters rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner have interrupted two presidential hopefuls: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It happened once at the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall, where O’Malley faltered, saying “White lives matter,” before later apologizing, while Sanders bristled and brushed off protesters he was supposed to meet with later. Then, in a second encounter for Sanders, protesters hit him at a recent rally in Seattle. And this week, Hillary Clinton met with five Black Lives Matter members in New Hampshire after the group was not allowed into the presidential candidate’s forum on substance abuse.

The pressure on Sanders must have had some effect, because on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, the candidate from Vermont, with the help of a new black press secretary, Symone Sanders, created a “racial justice” tab for his campaign-issues page. But with one step forward came a muddled step back, as the new press secretary instructed a recent crowd gathered for Sanders that if protesters disrupted the event, they were to chant: “We! Stand! Together!”


Here she was giving voice to a neglected constituency by acknowledging racial injustice, then turning around to silence them at the same time. 

In the backdrop of this is the need for (and the lack thereof) a black agenda. The question of having a black agenda rolled around tongues during Barack Obama’s presidency but was never fully realized. There was debate about why it never became an issue, with some saying it was because of infighting about what that agenda would entail by everyone from black intellectuals (West vs. Dyson) to black media personalities (Smiley vs. Sharpton) and black activists (Sharpton vs. West). There was also the argument that the president himself dismissed the idea of a black agenda.


“Barack Obama did black folks and black politics a disservice when he tried to usher in this post-racial era,” said Ollie Johnson, a political scientist and associate professor of African-American studies at Wayne State University. “He told us, ‘There’s no black America, there’s no Latin America, there’s just the United States.’ If that’s your perspective, then it will seem divisive if you bring up specific black-agenda items.”

Bernie Sanders, so far, is the only candidate with a comprehensive “racial justice” plan, which includes addressing physical violence against African Americans, whether perpetrated by the state or by extremists. His plan addressing this violence includes demilitarizing police and returning to community policing. He also addresses voter disenfranchisement, the prison-industrial complex and living wages. While admirable, again, none of these issues were part of his platform until after the protests from Black Lives Matter and after he hired Symone Sanders.


“None of the candidates have a really specified black agenda. There should be a black agenda specifically as it relates to cities that are majority African American,” said Will Hanna, a Baltimore community activist and black Republican. “In most major cities, we control a huge voter bloc in those cities. There has to be an agenda that addresses the socioeconomic issues in those areas.”

For black voters, Hanna said that John Kasich is as good as it gets on the Republican side, with Kaisch’s background as a governor in Ohio, a swing state. “He decreased the debt and increased access to health care, which wasn’t popular with the party but was in the best interest of the people,” said Hanna. “When you have someone that bold that would go against party lines and will say and do what’s in the interest of the people, that makes a candidate attractive.”


Johnson said Green Party candidate Jill Stein is the most progressive of all the candidates but would never win because the entire system is flawed. “The political system is anti-democratic. Most Americans think they vote for president when they go to the ballot box,” Johnson said. “They don’t. They vote for someone to cast a vote in the Electoral College. And the Electoral College is totally unaccountable to the people.”

Don Rojas, a leader in the reparations movement and communications director for the Institute of the Black World, says the overarching issue affecting black Americans is reparations, and none of the candidates have voiced an opinion on the reparations movement. “All of the difficulties and adversities that African Americans face on a daily basis can be traced back one way or another to the legacy of slavery,” said Rojas.


A black agenda is necessary, Rojas says, because the ills that affect African-American communities will eventually affect everyone. The housing crisis, for example, was in large part fueled by racist practices of predatory lending, which led to a recession.

“The extreme inequalities in wealth and income that blacks deal with every day is acting as a break on steady economic growth, according to a number of highly respected economists,” said Rojas. “If you don’t address this inequality, it’s going to boomerang to affect the entire national economy and slow it down. We’ve already seen it happening.”


Though the majority of the candidates have not begun to address issues of race, Black Lives Matter members are gunning for them. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes that all 2016 presidential candidates will be confronted.

“We’ve got plans for everyone,” she said.

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