Democratic presidential candidates stumbled early in their campaigns by underestimating the growing political power of the Black Lives Matter social movement. But in Tuesday night’s debate, those 2016 hopefuls were out to prove that they would not be caught flat-footed again.
“Black lives matter,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said unequivocally.
“The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail,” he added, referencing a woman whose death while in police custody in Texas this summer went on to fuel the social movement.
The course correction comes after activists disrupted the progressive confab Netroots Nation in July, taking over the stage with demands to be heard. The confrontation left Democratic candidates at a loss for words. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made what supporters considered a faux pas by declaring that all lives, not just black lives, matter.) But it also sparked a reckoning in demands for Democrats to take the movement seriously as a major 2016 litmus test.
Asked Tuesday night about the distinction between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, O’Malley said: “The point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color.”
Candidates in recent weeks were out to recalibrate by making criminal justice reform a priority, an issue that has gained bipartisan momentum in Congress. Black Lives Matter protesters followed Sanders on a number of campaign stops, where his broad message on combating income inequality fell flat with those looking for a tailored message on racial justice. Sanders introduced a bill in September that would place an outright ban on federal private prisons. O’Malley responded to the Netroots flub by making a plan to tackle structural racism a platform of his campaign.
Clinton has made efforts to meet with leaders of Black Lives Matter and more broadly, network organizations that advocate for an end to police violence. She still has work ahead her in making inroads with leaders, with her record of supporting tough-on-crime measures during her husband’s presidency coming at odds with the current goals of the movement.
“We need to tackle mass incarceration, and this may be the only bi-partisan issue in the Congress this year,” Clinton said. “We actually have people on both sides of the aisle who have reached the same conclusion — that we can not keep imprisoning more people than anybody else in the world.”
O’Malley, who served as Baltimore mayor in the early 2000s, was also pressed for his tough-on-crime policies that current city officials have criticized for laying the groundwork to racial unrest. O’Malley canceled paid speaking gigs in Europe this April after riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man whose spine was severed while in police custody.
“One of the things that was not reported during that heartbreaking night of unrest in Baltimore was that arrests had actually fallen to a 38-year low in the year prior to the Freddie Gray’s tragic death,” O’Malley said in defense on Tuesday.