Five Lessons for Democrats From the Black Lives Matter Protests

Many observers are perplexed by the decision of some Black Lives Matter activists to twice disrupt attempted addresses by presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Well, I am not perplexed. The new generation of civil rights activists never accepted “trickle-down economics” from conservatives. Today they are rejecting “trickle-down justice” from the liberals.

I love and admire Sanders. But until the Black Lives Matters activists started snatching away their microphones, economic populists like him rarely spotlighted the specific pain that has been building in the African-American community. Instead, they focused mainly on so-called “class issues” – including the need to defend Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, rein in Wall Street and the Koch Brothers, and tax corporations and rich people.

Many African-American leaders support those policies. But we have needed and wanted more. Our economic problems include an unemployment rate that is double that of whites, racially biased policing and court systems, predatory lenders who deliberately target black neighborhoods and public schools that expel black children at staggering rates for minor offenses.

Over the years, many black leaders have asked the populists to include specific remedies for our specific ills. We have done this politely and behind closed doors. Often we would hear that their “progressive economic policies” would disproportionately help black folks, so we should be fine with our community’s needs never being addressed by name.

It was infuriating. Sometimes, it seemed some Democratic politicians were happy to publicly name and embrace every part of the Democratic coalition – immigrants rights defenders, womens’ rights advocates, environmentalists and champions of LGBT equality. But not black people.

At least, not explicitly – and certainly not comfortably. We were just supposed to sit there and hope that race-neutral rhetoric and race-neutral proposals might somehow fix our race-specific problems.

I starting calling this dubious strategy “trickle-down justice.”

Today’s young activists simply are not having any of it.

In case anyone missed the memo after Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, here it is: the Obama era of black silence on issues that matter to us is over.

And the entire Democratic Party needs to sit up and take notice.

Black Lives Matter has elevated the national discussion of anti-black racism more dramatically than any movement in decades. It is the only “progressive” force besides Hillary Clinton that the GOP was forced to acknowledge in its first debate last week. By any measure, and especially for such a new phenomenon, that’s an extraordinary achievement.

Pundits tend to portray the modern Democratic Party as having only two factions: the pro-business/Wall Street “moderates” (traditionally represented by the Clintons) versus the economic populists (now represented by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders).

But a third force is rising: a growing, racial justice wing (best represented by the Dreamers and Black Lives Matter) that is highly suspicious of both – and finds the clueless hypocrisy of the second to be particularly grating.

Here are some things to consider.

1. Black Lives Matter is not a single organization.

Black Lives Matter is not a single organization – at least not in the conventional sense. It represents the expression of tens of thousands of activists, doing what they think makes sense, in hundreds of different places.

In that regard, it shares some features with Occupy, the tea party and the Arab Spring uprising. It is a “swarm” – a decentralized network, using an “open source” brand. Such phenomena are notoriously messy and difficult. But they are powerful and necessary to change anything in the present era.

So I will not agree with every single choice, in every time and every place, made by every activist who is inspired by Black Lives Matter. But I don’t have to endorse or embrace every tactic for me still to speak with deep respect and warm regard for a force that is becoming the most important movement against anti-black racism in decades.

I would hope that would be true of everyone.

Whatever injury befell Sanders this weekend, worse injuries have fallen upon the young women who grabbed the microphone – perpetually made to feel wrong, out of place, less than, even criminal their whole lives purely based on the color of their skin. Obviously, that sad fact does not excuse anything and everything that any BLM-inspired activist does. But it is something that is useful to keep in mind, as we search for pathways to unity.

2. It is not just about Bernie Sanders…

It turns out the Seattle activists’ actions were aimed less at Sanders himself and more at racistpractices and policies being tolerated by local liberals in a supposed progressive bastion like Seattle. The Seattle Police Department has been under investigation for years for racist scandals and problematic use of force. Black children in King County schools are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. And the region is wasting $210 million on a new jail instead of investing in communities.

The gulf between the region’s political reputation and its racial reality is not surprising to me. Nor is Seattle unusual. Far too many progressives are working within social networks that are almost monolithically white. In my experience, too few have focused on building authentic bridges beyond their monochromatic comfort zones.

Therefore, they are not really any more tuned in to the daily lives of people of color than the average moderate or even conservative. That’s why their prescriptions for change often ring hollow and fall flat – at least outside their own company.

3. … but it is fair to hold Sanders to a higher standard.

Some argue that the #BlackLivesMatter movement should focus its fire on Republicans. But the GOP generally does not pretend to be a champion of the economic underdog. And unlike Hillary Clinton or Martin O’Malley, the central conceit of Sanders’ campaign is that he represents a voice of moral clarity against skyrocketing inequality.

For example: any fair discussion of “income inequality” must necessarily include a denunciation of our racially biased criminal justice system. Always.

After all, it is hard to get a job after a judge labels you a felon. African-Americans and white people do drugs at the same rate. But the system incarcerates African-Americans at SIX TIMES the rate of whites, for the exact same behavior. This injustice is a major driver of economic inequality in the black community. It should be a part of ANY speech about economic inequality in the United States – and not just in speeches made to black audiences.

Therefore nobody should have had to push Sanders to tackle criminal justice issues. To the contrary, especially given the turmoil of the past year, the devastating impact of the incarceration industry should have been a key part of his very first speech as a presidential candidate.

To his credit, Sanders has quickly and admirably adapted. Since BLM protesters disrupted his time on stage at Netroots Nation, Sanders has made powerful speeches and statements. He has posted important, relevant policy prescriptions on his website. Sanders’ 2015 rhetoric may finally start to match his pro-civil rights voting record in Congress. Of course, he could go further. And I suspect he will.

4. Bernie’s supporters have failed to keep pace with Sanders’ progress.

Unfortunately, the vitriol from many of Sanders’ incensed backers is not helping his cause. It pains me to say this. But I continue to observe shocking levels of racial paternalism, arrogance and condescension in my personal and online interactions with Sanders’ outraged supporters. They remain tone-deaf or worse on issues that specifically or disproportionately hurt African Americans. And the situation seems to be getting worse, not better.

One first-person account of the Sanders rally in Seattle says the mostly white, liberal crowd “turned ugly” after the activists spoke up. If this behavior had taken place at a tea party rally, Sanders’ supporters would have condemned it.

Some so-called “progressives” even took to combing through the social media accounts of the young women who have protested Sanders, in search of damaging statements. These are the same tactics that progressives denounce right-wingers for employing – when they try to smear any unarmed, young black person whom the police have killed.

I do not know what kind of relationship the local white activists in Seattle actually have with young black/brown/native activists. But I bet it falls into one of three categories: nonexistent, tokenizing or condescending/condemning. Because, sadly, those are the only choices on the menu in most U.S. cities.

Today’s young activists won’t put up with that relationship any longer.

5. Beyond emotions – here is the hard math.

The challenge for all Democrats now is not raw emotion – but hard math.

For Democrats to win the White House in 2016, African-Americans must give 90-95 percent of our votes to that party’s nominee.

Not 50+1 percent of our vote.

Not even 75 percent.

To put another Democrat in the White House, black folks must be practically UNANIMOUS in our support for a Democrat.

AND then we will have to overcome hundreds of racist obstacles just to get to the poll: being unlawfully purged from voter rolls, getting targeted for voter ID harassment, being forced to stand in understaffed voting lines for hours and hours and more.

AND after all that, we still must turn out in record numbers.

Or the Democrats will lose. Period.

Given that fact, younger African Americans rightfully expect each and every Democratic candidate to explicitly, loudly and enthusiastically address the pain and needs of black lives – to THEIR satisfaction.

That’s fair – since those very candidates will expect those same young activists to turn out millions of voters for them in just a few months. And in pursuit of this goal, I think that most (if not all) of Black Lives Matters’ tactics – including and especially the iconic protest at Netroots Nation – are laudable, praiseworthy and inspired.

Perhaps this generation of young black folks will be the last one the Democrats (and economic populists, generally) can simply presume to take for granted.

If Black Lives Matter succeeds in that and nothing else, it will have built one of the most meaningful political movements of the 21st century.


This article was originally written for CNN.com.

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