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Democrats get message from Black Lives Matter

Protesters held signs as Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke in Cleveland last month.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

For more than a year, the words “black lives matter” have been shouted from streets in response to high-profile deaths of unarmed black people during encounters with police.

Those calls are now echoing on the presidential campaign trail, demanding attention from the Democratic Party as it enters a post-President Obama era.

“If they won’t stand with us, we won’t stand with them,” said Daunasia Yancey, leader of Black Lives Matter Boston, one of 26 chapters in the decentralized national organization.

This summer, protesters disrupted presidential campaign events for Democrats in Arizona, Washington, and New Hampshire — rushing stages, grabbing microphones, and holding unscripted confabs with politicians behind the scenes. Slowly and subtly, the candidates and the party — which counts black Americans as a key part of its electoral coalition — have responded.


Recently, the Democratic National Committee passed a “Resolution Condemning Extrajudicial Killings and Affirming Black Lives Matter” in late August at the party’s summer meeting in Minneapolis. But Black Lives Matter’s message to Democrats is clear: Words are not action.

Protests from Black Lives Matter activists at campaign events started in July at Netroots Nation, a gathering of progressive activists. Halfway through a speech by Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, protesters marched toward the stage, chanting. Organizers handed the microphones to protesters, who challenged O’Malley on police brutality. He at one point responded: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” He was booed.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the most liberal candidate in the race, also was challenged by protesters at the event in Phoenix. He became frustrated as he tried to speak over demonstrators, at one point saying, “Black lives, of course, matter. I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity. But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.” Last month, two protesters stormed the stage and took over the microphone at a Sanders event in Seattle.


Protesters stormed the stage and took over the microphone at a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle.Elaine Thompson/AP/File

Also in August, activists tried to attend Hillary Rodham Clinton’s town hall event in Keene, N.H., but were unable to get in. A video of a closed-door session with Clinton afterward shows activists demanding that Clinton acknowledge fault for supporting criminal justice policies established by her husband’s administration that they believe harmed black Americans.

While Clinton said “there has to be a reckoning,” she urged Black Lives Matter to create a plan because “you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium.”

The summer of activism by Black Lives Matter has influenced candidates’ policy positions while informing racial sensibilities, some analysts say.

“They are helping to change the discourse,” said James Jennings, professor emeritus of race, politics, and urban policy at Tufts University. “It’s very important for the political discourse in this country to change given everything that we’ve seen.”

O’Malley later apologized for using a phrase — “White lives matter. All lives matter.” — that appeared to minimize the importance of black deaths, saying during an interview with This Week in Blackness, “that was a mistake on my part.” At the same time, he released a criminal justice reform proposal, which his campaign spokeswoman said last month “had been informed” by conversations with Black Lives Matter activists.

Halfway through a speech by Martin O’Malley, protesters marched to the stage at Netroots Nation.Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

Sanders released a racial justice platform on Aug. 9 that calls for the eradication of physical, political, legal, and economic violence “waged against black and brown Americans.” The senator has met with movement activists and will continue to do so, according to his campaign.


“The issues [Black Lives Matter] activists are raising are important issues,” Symone Sanders, the Vermont senator’s national press secretary, said in a statement.

Clinton’s campaign said her frank discussion with activists was one of many conversations with members of the network to bring about change while confronting “deep-seated biases and racial injustice.”

“We must work together to change laws, raise awareness, and build a coalition,” said Clinton’s campaign in a statement.

Nearly 80 percent of registered black voters identify as Democrats, according to recent studies, and in the last presidential election, blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups.

“I think it’s been an important voice in the process, and I think it has clearly gotten candidates focused in a way that maybe weren’t before,” said Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and former communications director for the DNC.

Political analysts say the Black Lives Matter movement is calling out the Democratic Party on campaign promises that have yet to become realities under the law. “There comes a time in every movement where you get focused on the problem or you get focused on the solution, and this is that time,” said Elleithee, who added that figuring out what to do next is the more challenging part and that Black Lives Matter must be part of that conversation.


“They need us,” Yancey said, adding that it makes sense tactically to first approach those who are most sympathetic to your cause, similar to how lobbying works in government. “It is a strategic movement . . . We’re not out here just bumping into Hillary Clinton.”

And while the national Black Lives Matter organization applauds the steps politicians are taking “towards making the word safer for Black life,” it is not endorsing “the self-interested candidates, parties, or political machine seeking our vote,” according to a statement the Black Lives Matter Network released Aug. 30 in response to the DNC. “Resolutions without concrete change are just business as usual,” the statement said. “Promises are not policies.”

Few Republicans have engaged in the debate, analysts say. “The Republicans are totally ignoring black folks,” Jennings said.

One Republican, though — Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — was talking about these issues before Black Lives Matter began putting pressure on presidential candidates, said Kareem Jordan, who attended a Clinton town hall event in Nashua earlier this summer.

“I know quite a few black folks who, even though they weren’t conservative, thought Rand Paul was actually saying some things that were true on discrimination, and poor neighborhoods, and folks going to prison,” said Jordan, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Still, a disconnect exists. In late August, Paul also said Black Lives Matter should change its name.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.