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Progressive movement confronts its own 'demons' on race

Activists are seeking to redefine what it means to be a true progressive -– making racial justice issues essential to any progressive platform.

The black activists who interrupted a presidential candidate forum at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix last weekend had a target in mind bigger than Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, whom the protesters confronted on stage.

The candidates struggled to respond to questions when representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted the forum and asked what both men would do to address race relations and police violence. O’Malley tried to work with the activists, but caught boos when he verbally misstepped by saying “white lives matter.” Sanders seemed annoyed from the outset, talking over the protesters and saying, “If you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.” In the days since, O’Malley has explicitly apologized, while Sanders has moved to show he understands the protesters’ concerns.

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But rather than influence just two candidates, the activists sought to redefine what it means to be a true progressive – making racial justice issues essential to any progressive platform.

“Our strategy and our intention was very specifically to disrupt the progressive space that Netroots has established and claims to be,” said Tia Oso, one of the organizers of the protest, which was led by black women.

The candidates were, in some ways, collateral damage in an effort to force a reckoning among the largely white leadership of other sectors of the progressive movement, whom black activists feel have long downplayed racial justice.

“There is a schism. White progressives assume that black folks are a part of them, but they don’t give priority to the issues that black folks are facing. And yet we’re expected to all fall in line,” said Elon James White, a black activist and media figure who did not plan the protests, but works with Netroots. “This is an American problem, but the progressive space is supposed to care.”

Mary Rickle, a spokesperson for Netroots Nation, acknowledged that Netroots has struggled with race, but said it went to great lengths to incorporate the protesters. “The progressive movement as a whole, much like the rest of America, has issues that need to be addressed when it comes to race relations and racial justice. Netroots Nation has had issues over the years, and we continue to make steady movements forward,” she told msnbc.

The more interesting conversation has been taking place behind the scenes, where the Netroots protest ripped open a difficult discussion on race and pushed many white progressives to re-evaluate their priorities and themselves through a racial lens.

“I think it is a turning point,” said Patrisse Cullers, another Black Lives Matter activist. The progressive movement is finally “confronting it’s own demons” on race, she added.

Reaction to the disruption was far from positive. Some fans of Sanders or O’Malley complained. Others were concerned the protest overshadowed other progressive causes, and they feared elected officials would never again take Netroots seriously or attend the conference. On private listservs and in closed-door discussions, the debate has been heated and emotional at times.

But with more time, more critics of the protest seem to be coming around.

Michigan blogger Chris Savage wrote in a widely shared post that he at first felt frustrated and silenced by the Black Lives Matter activists, whose demonstration effectively derailed the presidential forum. “Every single one of these emotions that ran through my white privileged brain in the first few moments of the protest until I was slapped across the face with what I was being forced to confront. Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country,” he wrote.

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The protests exposed the fault lines in the progressive movement that have always been present, but are rarely discussed.

The Democratic Party is a tacit partnership of demographic groups with wildly different lived experiences, including both blacks and college-educated white liberals, who often serve as the party’s most committed activists.

Meanwhile, there’s an informal federation of disparate movements, from environmentalists to LGBT advocates to labor unions to feminists, who have all agreed to support each others’ causes if they receive the same support back in return. The common thread tying the coalition together is championing the powerless or vulnerable.

The price of peace inside the alliance, as the black activists see it, is a de-prioritization of their issues by party and movement leaders. They feel they have less to show for their reliable Democratic votes than, say, climate activists, DREAMers, or LGBT rights activists, who all saw sweeping gains under the Obama administration.

“We say this word ‘progressive,’ but what the hell does it actually mean?” asked Cullers. In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and now Sandra Bland, black activists want more from their movement. “We are so used to receiving crusts. But we actually need to be setting the agenda and setting the tone,” she said.

Netroots, and the larger progressive movement, is no stranger to interruptions. LGBT rights activists disrupted Bill Clinton’s speech in 2009 and Harry Reid’s speech in 2010. And DREAmers interrupted Vice President Joe Biden’s last year. Clinton, whose campaign is breathing a sigh of relief after skipping this year’s Netroots, was booed when she came in 2007.

But no disruption has caused as much discomfort, passion and self-examination as this year’s.

“It’s a space where people call themselves allies in the movement for black liberation, but often times we’re invited into that space and we don’t feel welcome,” said Ashley Yeats, a St. Louis-based organizer who was involved in the protests.

The conference stressed than many of its speakers were people of color, and noted that next year’s conference will take place in St. Louis, explicitly to call attention to the issues dredged up by the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. The activists were not satisfied with the conference, but stressed their concern was not with Netroots itself.

Philosophically, the protest exposed a clash between two different progressive analyses of the country’s problems, one racial and one economic. White progressives, typified by Sanders, tend to see the country’s problems through the lens of economic inequality, and suggest that if economic justice is achieved, racial justice will naturally follow.

RELATED: #BernieSoBlack becomes trending topic in wake of Netroots

The Black Lives Matter activists see systemic racial discrimination as orthogonal to economics, even if they intersect.

Sandra Bland, the black woman who was recently found dead in a Texas jail cell after being arrested, was only in the state because she had a new job at the college from which she graduated. A job and free college tuition would not have saved her life.

That’s why activists were so frustrated when Sanders pivoted to the familiar territory of class politics when asked about racial discrimination.

“Bernie had an opportunity to undermine the idea that he’s inattentive to issues of racial justice,” said Joe Dinkin of the progressive Working Families Party, which aligns with Sanders on many issues. “But when he talked about the need for a democratic revolution, he ignored the one that was staring him in the face.”

But Sanders seems to be learning his lesson. The next day in Texas, he decried Bland’s death and on Tuesday he called her treatment by police “totally outrageous.” He’s been making race more of a central piece of his campaign, drawing on his robust record fighting in the civil rights movement.

O’Malley also responded poorly in the moment, especially when he seemed to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement, by saying “white lives matter, all lives matter.” But at least O’Malley moved quickly to apologize for the remarks and worked hard to repair the damage, adding extra meetings with black activists and journalists later that day. He also met with activists in New York City last week.

Still, Yeats said both candidates “failed equally miserably.”

The good news for the candidates is that no Democrat has yet cornered the market on these issues in 2016.

Hillary Clinton, with the benefit of watching her rivals flail from a distance, has tried to succeed where they failed. She told an activist in Detroit Tuesday, “[I] really believe…that black lives matter.” She’s also made criminal justice reform an early piece of her campaign. That’s a good start, but a low bar, activists say, and they want to see more specifics.

While it’s unclear that activist demands will filter down to rank-and-file black voters, Democrats have plenty of time before Election Day to get up to speed.

“They’re lucky that it came today and not 30, 90 days before the election,” said Oso with a laugh. “They can thank me later.”