In an ornate replica of the US Senate floor Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth Warren called on all of us to remember and speak the names of those whose deaths in police custody have sparked a new wave of political activism.
With the speech, the state’s senior senator became one of the most prominent political leaders to express full-throated support for Black Lives Matter, the activist group that has been making an urgent issue of police brutality, and of racial injustice generally.
Speaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, Warren called for sweeping measures to combat racism, and linked it to her signature cause of economic injustice.
In her mind, violence, thwarted voting rights. and economic injustice have combined to hold back African-Americans for far too long.
“Black lives matter. Black citizens matter. Black families matter,” said Warren, invoking the lessons of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
That isn’t a novel view. But Warren deserves credit for directly embracing a movement that some would like to dismiss as part of some kind of anti-police fringe effort, which it isn’t.
“This speech has been in my head for a very long time,” she told me Thursday. “This speech has been in my heart for a long time. We have made progress, but not enough progress. That’s what I wanted to talk about.”
With characteristic directness, she spoke about the insensitivity of some police officers. She referred to a systematic effort over decades to keep black families underwater economically. She attacked Republicans for undermining (through voting district reconfiguration and other means) the most fundamental of freedoms — the right to vote — to win elections they would otherwise lose. She pulled no punches.
Warren said she had been inspired by watching the 20-something leaders of Black Lives Matter, whom she compared to the civil rights leaders of the 1960s.
“We’re hearing from a new generation of civil rights leaders who are fighting back against injustices and we can’t ignore them,” Warren said. “We cannot ignore that too many black men die at the hands of those who have sworn to protect them. We need a serious conversation about the kind of systemic injustices that continue to drag down people of color in this country.”
Warren is, of course, a progressive through and through; still, this speech came without warning. While she speaks constantly about inequality, she had rarely, if ever, spoken so specifically about the effects of racism. Even Black Lives Matters activists, who were delighted by Warren’s support, said they had no idea it was coming.
“I hope that folks will see it as a call to action,” said Daunasia Yancey, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Boston. “A lot of people have said black lives matter, but they haven’t taken the step of understanding the depth of anti-blackness.”
Not everyone loved what Warren had to say. She’s gotten pushback from some law enforcement officials who were offended by her suggestion that some police actually do sometimes engage in racist violence. To Warren’s credit, she hasn’t backed down.
Warren’s solutions to the problems she outlines weren't particularly groundbreaking. She called for strengthening the “eviscerated” Voting Rights Act, and for lawmakers to make it easier to vote. She wants greater, color-blind consumer protection, the better to help bolster the middle class. She called for a more robust commitment to community policing, and endorsed the use of body cameras for police officers.
If those ideas aren’t novel, they’re all worth pursuing.
The sad part is that speaking candidly about our nation’s struggles with race still has the power to surprise. Saying black lives matter should be a statement of fact, not a starting point for debate. I hope Warren isn’t done talking about race, and I don’t think she is.
“A lot of people have told me that this is a speech that needed to be given,” she said.