After facing protests from black activists, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled a comprehensive racial and criminal justice plan Monday.
Sanders, who has often spoken about running a police department as mayor of Burlington, promises to “reinvent how we police America” and packaged his criminal justice plan with proposals to preserve voting rights and protect against racial violence.
That means overhauling the way police are trained to downplay the use of force and emphasize community policing. Police officers would also be required to wear body cameras, paid for by the federal government.
The senator also calls for demilitarizing police forces, “so they don’t look and act like invading armies.” And he proposes including a wide swatch of community leaders in re-imagining police forces, including leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetuated by police,” Sanders said in a fact sheet released by his campaign. “We need a societal transformation to make it clear that black lives matter, and racism cannot be accepted in a civilized country.”
The senator has a long record working in the civil rights movement. But he hails from a state whose population is barely more than 1% black, and has struggled to connect to African-American voters, a key voting block in the Democratic Party.
But he’s stepped up efforts since Black Lives Matters activists interrupted his speech at the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in late July. He was the only major presidential candidate to speak to the annual conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Louisiana last month, and recently hired a racial justice activist as his new press secretary.
Even so, his speech to a Social Security rally in Seattle Saturday was shutdown by activists with the Black Lives Matter movement, who said they need to hold Sanders accountable.
Sanders’ plan also goes after what he calls the “failed ‘War on Drugs,’” condemning “racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly.”
“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change,” states the Sanders campaign fact sheet.
The candidate’s plan shares some common planks with that of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who used the first policy speech of her campaign to call for criminal justice reform, but would go farther in some areas.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third leading Democratic candidate, has rolled out his own comprehensive criminal justice reform plan, which includes some similar positions and pushes for greater fairness and transparency in sentencing and police work.
Unlike his rivals, Sanders’ framed the issue of criminal justice reform in a larger issue of racial violence. He includes white supremacist violence, like the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer. And it also includes protections for African-American voting rights.
“The ‘violence’ framing in the initial draft of the Sanders Racial Justice platform is powerful. & I look forward to seeing him expand this,” said Deray McKesson, a prominent activist with the Black Lives Matter movement.
For years, Democrats feared criminal justice reform was a political liability that would get them labeled as “soft on crime.” Recently, however, President Obama has called for a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system and became the first president to visit a prison last month.