For the second time in as many months, activists aligned with #BlackLivesMatter have disrupted a major speaking event featuring presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Activists have targeted Democratic Party candidates for their lackluster positions on winning racial justice. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who participated in an earlier direct action at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, said at the time, “I want to hear concrete actions … we are in a state of emergency.”
Two activists in Seattle more recently stopped a rally for Sanders when they took to the stage to more generally denounce white liberals. If there were more specific demands they had of Sanders, those were less clear.
The focus on Sanders by #BLM activists has worked, if the goal was to get him to hew his platform closer to demands emanating from the #BLM movement. Indeed, since his first encounter with #BLM activists, Sanders has sharpened his “racial justice” platform to include demilitarizing the police, decriminalizing marijuana and investing $5 billion “to employ young people of color.” Sanders also hired a new black national press secretary, Symone Sanders, to help him communicate more effectively with black voters.
Sanders’ platform addressing racism in American society is much more substantive than that of the Democratic Party front-runner, Hillary Clinton. On Clinton’s website, there are no specific policy proposals for “racial justice.” The protests targeting candidates for the Democratic ticket appear to be in an effort to get those candidates to produce robust plans detailing how they will address institutional racism. The hashtag and slogan “Earn our vote” implies, if not forthrightly declares, that there is a particular combination of planks the Democratic Party can assemble concerning race to win the vote of the movement.
To be sure, the candidates running for the highest office in the U.S. should have to respond to the most significant anti-racist movement to sweep the country in years. But there is a larger question: What is the significance of either Sanders or Clinton producing “racial justice” platforms when they remain in a political party that is complicit and invested in the destruction of black neighborhoods through the instruments of privatization and the erosion of public services and institutions? Why should we believe that this is anything other than election-year posturing? In 1964 Malcolm X said of black voters, “You put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last.” Has anything changed in 50 years?
In city halls across the country, elected officials in the Democratic Party have championed privatization and law-and-order policies that have contributed greatly to the hardships that dog black communities. In just one example, nationally, Democrats have driven the process of school privatization and the proliferation of charter schools that have not only led to the unprecedented closures of predominantly black public schools but have also resulted in the dismissal of thousands of black teachers. In Chicago and Philadelphia, Democratic Party mayors have closed almost 100 public schools since 2012.
The national Democratic Party realizes that it has a potential problem in black-voter turnout because Barack Obama will not head the ticket in 2016, and that reality has created even more pressure on the party to orient its attention toward the Black Lives Matter movement and appeal to the young black voters who were crucial to Obama’s success in 2008 and 2012. This may have more to do with Bill Clinton’s recent apology for his role in the mass-incarceration crisis in black communities across the country than witih actual contrition.
The quickness with which leading Democratic candidates can utter the words “Black lives matter” or “mass incarceration” is not because the party is being pushed to the left—it’s the process of the party doing whatever it can to redirect the energy of the movement out of the streets and into the 2016 elections. This is not new. In the aftermath of the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy met black activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in an effort to redirect their direct action and confrontational demonstrations into voter registration and other “peaceful” means of change. Kennedy famously told the activists, “Why don’t you guys cut out all that s—t, ‘freedom riding’ and sitting-in s—t, and concentrate on voter education? If you do that, I’ll get you a tax exemption.”
This does not mean that elections are irrelevant or that people do not have genuine fear about the horror show that is the Republican Party. The leading candidate for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is openly racist and misogynist, but the Democrats exploit the fears of their black, Latino, poor and working-class base, demanding silence on the issues that matter most to ordinary people while simultaneously trying to peel away white suburban voters from the Republican Party. While trying to keep the greater evil out of office, our side ends up with the lesser evil in power. In either case, the issues of most concern to ordinary people are ignored.
The #BLM movement has shown that grassroots activism is the most effective way to wrench change out of this system by confronting racist policing practices and discrimination in the criminal-justice system. This movement has done more to expose the systemic roots of police murder and brutality than any commission, elected official or national conversation on race could ever have hoped to accomplish. Similarly, the movement of low-wage workers has done more to raise awareness about poverty and actually raise the minimum wage than any elected official.
The persistent threat of protest in the U.S. has led to the firing and jailing, in some cases, of police who maim and murder. It has compelled elected officials to offer substantive changes instead of ignoring the issue or simply blaming black victims of police violence. At the same time, it is not enough. The police killed more people in July (118) than in any other month this year. On the one-year anniversary of the lynching of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., local police shot and critically injured an 18-year-old black teenager. The overtures of the Democratic Party are intended as a return to the status quo. Our real power remains in the streets.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of the forthcoming From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, which will be published by Haymarket Books in January 2016. Taylor is also assistant professor of African-American studies in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.