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Renée Graham

Bernie Sanders, other candidates need to get louder on civil rights

Bernie Sanders addressed protesters at the Netroots Nation presidential town hall in Phoenix on July 18.Charlie Leight/Getty Images

If Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wants to remain a viable contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, he must quickly realize that waving his scrapbook of good deeds done is not enough for young African-Americans legitimately concerned that a minor traffic infraction could cost them their lives.

Faced with Black Lives Matter protesters at the progressive Netroots Nation presidential town hall earlier this month, Sanders did not respond in a manner expected from a man who often touts his active participation in the 1960s civil rights movement. Fresh in the minds of the activists was the mysterious death of Sandra Bland, the black Chicago woman found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after she was pulled over by a trooper for failing to signal during a lane change.

So when protesters interrupted Sanders and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, they were in no mood to be pacified. They sought more than rote answers about how to eradicate systemic, institutional racism. Sanders tried to stick to his economic talking points, but came off as peevish when he finally said, “Black lives, of course, matter. And I’ve spent 50 years fighting for civil rights and for dignity. But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.” He later canceled a meeting with some African-American activists.

“I came away with the impression that [the candidates] have a lot of homework to do,” said Tia Oso of Black Alliance for Just Immigration. But Cenk Uygur, cohost of the liberal online show “The Young Turks,” suggested it was Oso and her fellow protesters who needed to do their homework, and said such public outbursts hurt, not help, their cause.


In this incendiary racial climate, here’s what white progressives need to understand. When a person is being drowned, you don’t criticize how they see fit to keep the waves at bay and their head above dangerous waters. Like ACT UP protesters who more than 20 years ago fought to end government indifference regarding the AIDS pandemic, Black Lives Matter members aren’t just chanting for a cause; they’re screaming for their lives. They are this nation’s assiduous conscience, a tangible reminder that between the headlines, black lives are routinely lost in interactions with police. To borrow ACT UP’s slogan, silence equals death.


No one doubts Sanders’ civil rights bona fides, or that when it comes to social justice issues he’s regarded as one of the good guys. He often cites the intransigent role that economic inequality, lousy schools, and unemployment play in disenfranchising too many African-Americans, and how unequal justice and law enforcement lands a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars.

For a man who was there when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech nearly 52 years ago, Sanders should see Black Lives Matter as the exigent echo of King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait.” In 1964, King wrote: “Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.” A half-century later, some white progressives who can afford the luxury of waiting because they are not under constant threat still believe a whisper will somehow suffice.

This is not the last time Sanders will face Black Lives Matter activists during his campaign, but it seems he has already learned from his botched encounter at Netroots Nation. On MSNBC, he called the video of Bland’s arrest “painful and dreadful,” adding, “We need a real hard look at the way police departments function in America.”

Protesters respect and appreciate Sanders’ historical involvement in civil rights. Yet they must keep pressing him — and his Democratic rivals — on what they will do for this civil rights movement as this nation finds itself again, in King’s ever-resonant words, “confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”


Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.


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