Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were interrupted by “Black Lives Matter” protesters during a town hall style segment at Netroots Nation in Phoenix on Saturday. The former Maryland Governor and current Vermont Senator, as well as moderator Jose Antonio Vargas, seemed caught off guard at times, as they attempted to simultaneously respond to the protesters while also discussing other topics.
Black Alliance for Just Immigration national coordinator Tia Oso, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors each briefly occupied the stage to draw attention to critical issues related to structural racism in America. Cullors acknowledged that while she took no pleasure in shutting down the discussion between Vargas and O’Malley, she felt compelled to, because she contended:
We are in a state of emergency. If you do not feel that emergency, then you are not human. I want to hear concrete action plans.
When pressed for concrete answers, O’Malley and Sanders both seemed to stumble a bit. Governor O’Malley did receive considerable applause when he said all police departments should be required to have civilian review boards, but he struggled otherwise.
O’Malley’s most tone deaf moment came when he said:
Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.
He then repeated the statement a second time.
The problem with the “all lives matter” or “White lives matter” mantras are that they dismiss the significance of black lives by failing to acknowledge the reason for the “black lives matter” movement. In our culture, it is black lives that are systematically and disproportionately cut short by racist police officers, not white lives.
The slogan “black lives matter” is not saying “only black lives matter”. However, it is acknowledging that in an structurally racist culture, white lives already matter by default. By contrast, black lives have historically and are still often viewed as expendable by those who exercise power and authority, including most notably law enforcement officers. By adding the caveats that “white lives matter” and “all lives matter”, O’Malley was inadvertently speaking the language of the White supremacist, by invalidating black protesters claims to being disproportionately targeted for police killings.
As Martin O’Malley exited the stage, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had the opportunity to address the concerns of the “Black lives matter” protesters. Unfortunately, rather than seizing upon the moment to give voice to their concerns, Sanders began by saying:
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let me talk about what I want to talk about for a moment.
To be sure, some of what Sanders talked about was relevant, but his approach was every bit as tone deaf as O’Malley’s. Sanders drew loud applause when he proclaimed that we should “invest in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration”, but other than that, he mostly floundered in front of the demonstrators.
At one point, a flustered Sanders added that “of course black lives matter” but then he went on to add “but if you don’t want me to be here…” and he looked prepared to exit early. Vargas was able to keep Sanders from departing and he asked the Senator a few more questions. Sanders articulated much of his policy agenda, but a lot of what he said was unrelated to the core issues of concern to the “Black lives matter” protesters.
Sanders and O’Malley are two of the most progressive candidates in the 2016 presidential race, and yet they both seemed unable to escape their comfort zones of white privilege to address the “Black lives matter” protesters in a substantive or even symbolically meaningful way. Their inability to do so, isn’t so much an indictment of the two men, as it is a recognition that White America has much work to do to address the state of emergency Patrisse Cullors alluded to.
White progressives, in particular, need to recognize that not only does White America have work to do, but so does “progressive” White America. If that wasn’t obvious before, it should be now.