Permit me a few minutes to talk about Bernie Sanders, my favorite candidate in the 2016 Presidential field.
A couple weeks ago, Sanders appeared by video at over 3,500 house parties in all fifty states. The Sanders campaign says about 104,000 people attended. Seventeen attended the event in Spearfish. About fifty attended the Rapid City Sanders event, and I’m told 168 went to the Sioux Falls Sanders event. Joshua McDonald, a Northern Hills resident organizing for Sanders, says his people are working on collaborating with Team Sanders in Iowa to canvass for Sanders in Sioux City on August 28. McDonald also says a couple of Black Hills State students want to organize a campus group to promote Sanders at school and around the Black Hills.
I’m excited about Bernie Sanders for the same reason I was excited about Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and 2008: he’s an anti-corporate straight-shooter, a real progressive liberal, a believer in single-payer health care, and an underdog. He doesn’t come from big money or big name. He’s not part of the power elite—how can I not like him?
While Sanders is the clear front-runner for runner-up to Hillary Clinton, Nate Cohn of the New York Times observes that the July 29 house parties show that Berniemania doesn’t reach beyond liberal white districts enough to grab the nomination:
An analysis of Mr. Sanders’s activist base shows that the turnout for Mr. Sanders was overwhelmingly concentrated in the country’s most liberal communities. There were actually more Sanders attendees in Portland, Ore., than in New Hampshire or Iowa. There was little or no activity in many nonwhite and conservative areas that possess the votes and delegates to decide the nomination.
Twelve congressional districts — all in Southern or nonwhite areas — had no Sanders events. There were no Sanders events in an overwhelmingly Democratic, minority-heavy district in New York City. There were no Sanders events in two heavily Hispanic congressional districts in California. There were no events in several congressional districts in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida [Nate Cohn, “Support for Bernie Sanders Is Deep But Narrow,” New York Times: The Upshot, 2015.07.30].
Cohn argues that Hillary Clinton would have crushed Barack Obama in 2008 if black voters hadn’t turned out in such strong numbers for him.
Black citizens did turn out for a Sanders event in Seattle this weekend—to disrupt it. At a rally to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Social Security, two Black Lives Matter protesters commandeered the microphone; pre-empted Sanders’s speech with their own speech and a demand for four and a half minutes of silence to recognize the one-year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; then refused to surrender the microphone to Sanders and instead asked the crowd to “join us now in holding Bernie Sanders accountable for his actions.” Black Lives Matter Seattle cofounders Marissa Johnsona nd Mara Willaford issued a press release saying, “We honor black lives by doing the unthinkable, the unapologetic, and the unrespectable.” Sanders left the stage, shook hands with folks in the crowd, then went to an evening rally in Seattle that drew 15,000 people.
Sanders is talking more about racial issues, although he prefers to frame racial issues in the context of his forté, economic issues. When NPR’s David Greene tried to draw Sanders into criticizing Hillary Clinton for not using the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” Sanders refused to take that bait and instead focused on deeper issues than the words coming out of liberals mouths:
Phraseology, of course I’d use that phrase…. Black lives matter; white lives matter; Hispanic lives matter. But these are also not only police matters, they’re not only gun control matters, they are significantly economic matters. … Because it’s too easy for quote-unquote liberals to be saying, “Well, let’s use this phrase.” Well, what are we going to do about 51 percent of young African-Americans unemployed?
We need a massive jobs program to put black kids to work and white kids to work and Hispanic kids to work. So my point is, is that it’s sometimes easy to say — worry about what phrase you’re going to use. It’s a lot harder to stand up to the billionaire class and say, “You know what? You’re going to have to pay some taxes. You can’t get away with putting your money in tax havens, because we need that money to create millions of jobs for black kids, for white kids, for Hispanic kids” [Bernie Sanders, quoted in Jessica Taylor, “Sanders: ‘My Goal Right Now Is to Win This Election’,” NPR.org, 2015.06.25].
I agree with Donna Brazile that “Black Lives Matter” has a clear relevance to the discussion of ongoing institutional racism in America. Responding with “All Lives Matter” misses the point that lots of black Americans (and lots of South Dakota Indians) don’t think we mean them when we say “All.”
Certain vocal tactics may be necessary to nudge Sanders and all candidates for the Democratic nomination toward giving more air time to the serious issues of police brutality and discrimination in the criminal justice system. However, folks shouting “Black Lives Matter” and yanking the microphone from a man who got arrested for protesting school segregation in Chicago are missing an opportunity for a much more positive, constructive dialogue. They are also missing a chance to mobilize their followers to back Bernie Sanders and fight the mostly white oligarchs offered by Republican Party who are far less capable of empathizing with the plight of their fellow Americans.
Blacks, Indians, and everyone else outside America’s privileged class should ask every candidate hard questions about racism. But they should also listen to Bernie Sanders talk extensively about the complicated issues of physical, political, legal, and economic violence that he vows to address. Then they’ll see that they can promote racial justice better by joining the white liberals at Sanders’s next house parties (that Spearfish photo was all white, wasn’t it?), making sure their issues are part of the conversation, and organizing to mobilize their friends and neighbors to support Bernie Sanders the way they supported Barack Obama.