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.


What he should have done is simply engage in a “call and response” with the protesters, then pivot back to the rest of the audience. What is so difficult about saying the names “Rekia Boyd” and “Sandra Bland”? Had O’Malley simply said those names, the protesters would have been validated, and the audience would have marveled at his empathy and political acumen. After charming the crowd and running down his political résumé, O’Malley could have walked off the stage and left Sanders feeling like the guy who has to follow a Prince guitar solo.

In the future, O’Malley must handle these predictable protests better because 1) his own record of New York-style “zero tolerance” policing rubbed quite a few people the wrong way and it’s bound to come up again, and 2) he clearly doesn’t understand the rhetoric behind #BlackLivesMatter.


Next time he gets the opportunity, he needs to say those women’s names Destiny’s Child-style, then say “Black lives matter” and stay quiet. “All lives matter” is a passive-aggressive narrative created to keep black people from being the focus of a policy conversation. Nobody was arguing for “All lives matter” until black folks asserted themselves on these issues. And the only people who say “White lives matter” are running around South Carolina wondering where their flag went. O’Malley needs to remember that he’s a former mayor of one of the toughest cities in America, instead of acting like a bumbling presidential candidate.

Name: Bernie Sanders


Résumé: Former mayor of Burlington, Vt., current U.S. senator from Vermont

Biggest mistake: Drinking his own Kool-Aid

What happened: As with O’Malley, perhaps there is a little bit of a pass for Sen. Bernie Sanders, too. African Americans make up about 1 percent of the total population of Vermont at 6,277. To put that in context, there are more black first-graders in the city of Baltimore than there are total black people in the state of Vermont. But like O’Malley, Sanders, as an experienced politician, should have known better.


Sanders came onstage after what was left of O’Malley slinked off, and immediately began addressing the #BlackLivesMatter protesters. He told them, “Of course black lives matter,” and then proceeded to say that he wanted to discuss some of his key talking points before he got to their concerns. This did not go over well. The protesters asked Sanders what he’s done about criminal-justice reform and institutional racism. After dropping an old bromide about working with Martin Luther King Jr. (which was about as effective as throwing ice cubes in a volcano), Sanders got angry and pulled the ultimate political “Get off my lawn” move by threatening to leave if the protesters didn’t “want” him there. Sanders more or less finished his stump speech and then left, and proceeded to summarily cancel all of his meetings for the rest of the day, including one with some African-American protesters and leaders.

What he should have done: Perhaps if Team Sanders had spent more time listening to the protesters and working the crowd instead of laughing at O’Malley’s flubs from behind the curtain, it might have handled things better. If Sanders were smart, he would have come out right after O’Malley and embraced the crowd. Told them how he understood their pain and then proceeded to explain how his policies of economic empowerment would not only help African Americans but would also impact issues like #BlackLivesMatter.


The problem down the road for Sanders is that he operates from a “one shoe fits all” policy perspective but starts stamping his feet when things don’t fit. Although addressing income inequality is an important issue that would help all black people, #BlackLivesMatter concerns cross economic lines. Black people of all socioeconomic levels—from academics, like Henry Louis Gates Jr., to the working class, like Michael Brown, to the newly employed, like Sandra Bland—are victims of police brutality. Contrary to popular slogans, a job isn’t going to stop a bullet; nor will it guarantee you justice. Sanders needs to understand that his “rising tide lifts all boats” rhetoric won’t float for the critical #BlackLivesMatter crowd when people are drowning in violence and sorrow.


Both candidates can actually make up ground from their mistakes in Phoenix, but it’s going to take time. As I told one of Sanders’ campaign staffers, “About 25 percent of black Twitter is here—you probably want to fix this and soon.” Sanders did nothing, and 24 hours later we had #BernieSoBlack trending. O’Malley, who went out of his way to apologize and engage with black media, may not be going up in the polls, but his damage-control game is impressive. The key, however, is this: No one running for president in 2016 (Republican or Democrat) can afford to ignore the concerns of one of the most important voting blocs in America. As of right now, no one for sure has black folks on lock, but failing to address an issue crucial to African-American women won’t help you gain any ground on Hillary Clinton.  


Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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