The Democratic Party Does a Lousy Job Protecting Black Women

Stephanie Valencia, Karine Jean-Pierre and Kamala Harris speak onstage at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum at The Warfield Theatre on June 01, 2019 in San Francisco, California.
Photo: Miikka Skaffari (Getty Images)

“Why are you wearing all black?” I asked my friend, noticing her wearing a long sleeve black shirt, black jeans and black sneakers in the 1,000-degree Arizona heat despite being in an air-conditioned convention hall.

She leaned over to me and said: “I just want to warn you, we’re about to do some real disruptive shit right now!”

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Seconds later, she, along with over a dozen other black men and women—also wearing black—stood up and began chanting “Sandra Bland” and “Say her name” in the crowded convention hall. Local activist Tia Oso bumrushed the stage, got her hands on the mic and demanded that the man on stage address the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This was July 2015 at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, and the man on stage was Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley. That was a watershed moment for the Black Lives Matter movement going mainstream, and a reminder that disruption, discomfort and outright confrontation of candidates is a good thing in a healthy democracy. People were thrilled, angry, shocked and embarrassed, but you know what no one felt that afternoon? Fear. Nobody for one second believed that Martin O’Malley was in any danger.

Which is what made the “disruption” of Kamala Harris at MoveOn.org’s Big Ideas conference all the more problematic last week. Anyone who’s seen The Bodyguard, White House Down, heck even Paul Blart Mall Cop should’ve been embarrassed that a man got on stage within inches of California Sen. Kamala Harris. However, the incident was the greatest indictment of the Democratic Party, which once again has shown it is either unwilling, incapable or abjectly refusing to protect the lives of black women.

In case you missed the events of last Saturday because you were still recovering from When They See Us, Harris was on stage at a MoveOn.org forum discussing her campaign when this happened:

Animal-rights activist Aiden Cook, in all of his man-bun righteousness, decided to hop on stage, grabbed the microphone and started talking about “the important” issue of animal extinction. To Sen. Harris’s credit, she had all the calm and poise of a million Gayle Kings staring down a thousand R. Kellys, and if you looked up “unbothered” in the dictionary you’d have seen Harris face right next to the 62-year-old black lady working behind the counter at the DMV and post-presidency Barack Obama.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum was MoveOn.org Chief Public Affairs Officer Karine Jean-Pierre, who, fresh from her day job as Wakandan chief of security and official bearer of “these hands,” put all 4-foot, 11-inches of her power into cowing Cook off stage until the late security showed up and actually did their job. Which, for all of the black girl magic and female empowerment memes to spring forth from this event, is actually the real issue.

First, while Cook had a press pass, he had done this kind of thing before at a Bernie Sanders rally. The guy is local and MoveOn.org and local Democratic organizers should’ve had a picture of him next to every security checkpoint like Safeway posts black and white photos of shoplifters next to the cashier.

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However, the ultimate responsibility doesn’t fall on MoveOn, it falls on the National Democratic Party that still operates like we’re in “normal times” when it comes to the lives and safety of black female candidates and officials. President Donald Trump’s open courting of white nationalists, terrorists and his own penchant for threatening his political opponents has made it an incredibly dangerous time for black candidates like Harris.

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Prosecutions against threats to federal officials jumped by 41 percent in 2018 alone, and researchers at the University of Miami at Ohio show that in the last 25 years, 85 percent of threats against elected officials have been from white men, mostly under 30 and primarily targeted at Democrats. Even worse, Harris’ brush with potential danger isn’t isolated.

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In the last year, there have been public reports of at least two threats on Sen. Harris’ life, including one from Trump supporting MAGA bomber Cesar Syoc. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has received four death threats since becoming a target of Trump, and this past April, death threats against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) spiked after a tweet from Trump. These are just the national black female Democrats we know. Don’t forget about the white nationalist who threatened the Stacey Abrams campaign and still took time out to take a selfie with Brian Kemp. Or Kiah Morris, the only black women in the Vermont House of Representatives who resigned during 2018 because of racist threats on her life. These women are all black Democrats; they all need protection from the party whom they are literally putting their lives on the line for.

Now, of course, there will be those people who argue that Harris wasn’t actually hurt and that if we overreact to one man bun-wearing activist then we’re shutting down democracy. I get that. But, this mindset ignores two important issues. First, Sen. Harris could have been hurt. Cook was close enough that he could have stabbed everyone on that stage with a pencil before security got there (although, I’m pretty convinced that Karine Jean-Pierre would’ve hit him with a John Wick-style roundhouse kick that would have pushed the pencil back through his forehead, but I digress) or just as easily thrown urine or chicken blood on Harris to protest factory farms. It’s still too close for comfort. We can have a vibrant resistance in our democracy without physically touching anybody running for office. Second, the Democratic Party has an obligation to get more serious about protecting black female officials, at all levels, in the political environment that we have today.

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What can the Democratic Party do about protecting black women? The same thing they did for Obama. Obama got a Secret Service detail in May 2007; he wasn’t a frontrunner, he was 11 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in the polls and a full nine months ahead of the first ballot being cast in a Democratic primary. Homeland security provided the protection based on a congressional advisory committee. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew that win or lose, the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy made the protection necessary.

The same considerations should be given to Sen. Harris, and if this racist incompetent administration won’t provide the security then the DNC should come up with the cash for her and any other black women who’ve been targeted. Next time a black woman is in danger on the campaign trail, whether it’s a local state senator, congressional candidate, mayor or Kamala Harris, we can’t just assume that another black woman will come in to save the day.

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