A town hall style discussion Saturday morning that featured two Democratic presidential candidates, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, quickly shifted gears when two women from the #BlackLivesMatter campaign got up on stage and tried to get them to address “structural racism” in this country.
The event, moderated by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonino Vargas, who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine article in 2011, was one of the headliners for the Netroots Nations convention, the largest gathering of progressives in the country.
O’Malley appeared on stage first, and discussed his record of government and law enforcement reform. Vargas didn’t let him get away with too many generalities—“some have called you the father of mass incarceration,” he said, pointing out that life for the “black [population of Baltimore] didn’t rise under you” to the extent it did for the white population. If elected president, “how would you prove that black lives matter?” Vargas asked.
When O’Malley started talking about the intersection of race, violence, and law enforcement, Vargas interrupted him. “What would President O’Malley do that’s not being done now?” he pushed.
“I would address sentencing disparities,” especially for drug crime, “and I’d focus a lot more on re-entry to society,” O’Malley answered. He said later that he was strongly against the for-profit prison system, and strongly for fully funded civilian review boards for law enforcement.
But about 20 minutes into his allotted time, while answering a question Vargas asked about expanding social security benefits, both men were distracted suddenly by a group of protesters – “What side are you on my people? What side are you on?” they chanted.
The rumble grew louder and louder as more people joined in. Vargas and O’Malley appeared confused, not sure whether to address the audience members, or pretend not to hear them and continue with the discussion.
Eventually enough people joined in to overpower and drown out O’Malley and Vargas’ microphones. Tia Oso, one of the women leading the demonstration got on stage and took the microphone.
When it was clear she intended to make a statement about racial inequality and the momentous #BlackLivesMatter campaign, not ask a specific question of the candidate, Vargas tried to chime in. But Oso waved him off as audience members cheered, continuing to talk about the daily loss of lives endured by the black community, and the failure of any politician to address it. (Oso did not respond to requests for comment.)
Finally, at Vargas’ insistent prompting, she asked O’Malley a question. “I want to know what you are going to do to dismantle, not just reform, but dismantle structural racism in this country?” she asked. O’Malley, who looked uncertain how to handle the situation, glanced at Vargas, and then back to Oso. He began talking about his track record, but was again cut off by chanting from the audience.
Vargas, perhaps realizing that as moderator he had to take control of the situation, attempted to do just that, but to little avail. Soon another woman joined Oso, O’Malley, and Vargas on stage, giving an incredibly emotional speech about racism.
“It all boils down to the fight for black lives and brown lives; not to what you’ve done, but what you will do,” she said to O’Malley. “I want concrete action plans.”
O’Malley stumbled his way through generalities about criminal justice reform, saying that he would be rolling out a through criminal justice reform package in the coming weeks.
And then came what was probably his biggest gaffe of the day. “Every life matters. Black lives matter, white lives matter. All lives matter,” he said.
As University of California Professor Judith Butler explained earlier this year to reporters from the New York Times, “when some people rejoin with “All Lives Matter” they misunderstand the problem, but not because their message is untrue. It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.”
“Saying ‘all lives matter’ causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces. Saying ‘all lives matter’ is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. Saying ‘all lives matter’ is unnecessary,” argues Julia Craven of the Huffington Post in the powerful essay “Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter.”
Minutes later, O'Malley's time was up. He thanked Vargas, and walked off clapping and chanting along with the audience, “black lives matter, black lives matter.”
Before Sanders came out to speak, a Netroots Nations board member walked on stage and addressed the audience about what just happened, asking them to please allow the event to proceed as planned.
Shortly after, Sanders came out to great applause and began giving his stump speech about income inequality and a promise to overturn Citizens United. Minutes in, though, the audience began chanting “black lives matter” again.
“Are you in charge?” a visibly frustrated Sanders said to Vargas.
“Listen,” Sanders continued, addressing the audience, “of course Black lives 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 okay. I don’t want to out-scream people.”
Some stopped chanting.
“Black people are dying in this country because of an unjust criminal justice system that’s totally out of control,” he huffed.
When asked what he would do to help combat racism, Sanders, who tends to view most global or national issues through the lens of economics, began to talk about reducing the disproportionately high unemployment rate among black and Hispanic youth.
The audience, however, was not having it.
“Say her name! Say her name! Say her name!” the crowd began chanting, interrupting Sanders.
“I want Bernie Sanders to say my name,” one woman yelled.
Vargas suggested that perhaps what the some audience members were so angry about was the fact that “we’ve not fully confronted racism in this country.”
“It’s not a question of talking about something,” Sanders shot back.
The demonstration clearly caught the candidates off-guard, and many have criticized the way they responded, arguing that they should have addressed the issues, not tried to silence an already marginalized community.
One white audience member told New Times that he “doesn’t blame [the protesters] at all” for disrupting the event, explaining his reasoning like this: “‘We’re dying every day,’ they’re saying. ‘How can you possible talk about other issues when we’re being killed on the streets like this?’”
“I understand what they’re trying to get to,” another man told New Times. “There are bigger issues at play, and they felt those issues weren’t being addressed.” Instead of properly seizing an opportunity to talk about an incredibly important issue, he added, the two white politicians chose to persist with their stump speech rhetoric.
But not everyone watching the situation was okay with how it unfolded.
“They hijacked the speech,” one woman told New Times, explaining that she thinks it’s important for people to voice their opinions, but that this wasn’t the forum for it. “I [wanted] to hear Martin O’Malley actually answer the question,” she said, adding that it was unrealistic to ask any candidate how he or see plans to “dismantle structural racism in the U.S. in four years.”
“They better not do that to Bernie,” another viewer said loudly as O’Malley walked off stage. But Sanders received the same line of hard questioning, and tripped over the situation as well.
“He acted more like a grumpy old man” than a lifelong fighter for civil rights, one man told New Times, adding that he was disappointed in the Senator’s reaction. Others have echoed the sentiment on social media or though formal press releases.
Black lives matter and we stand in solidarity with every single organizer and activist who stood up and demanded that presidential candidates challenge power and respond to the crushing consequences of structural racism.
Our country needs a president who is committed to progressive policies and is willing to challenge power — from deep-seated racism in America to corporate interests that rig the game against working people.
But more important than any statement we might make today are the names of the people who have been killed by a powerful, racist system that we must take on together, like:
Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.
John Crawford III
Oscar Grant III
Daniel Simmons, Sr.
Malissa Williams …and too many more.