Bernie Sanders Throws #BlackLivesMatter a Bone in Urban League Speech

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 8.46.48 PMEver since Hillary Clinton‘s second presidential run was a gleam in her eye, nearly everyone in the political and media world has been dreaming of someone to fight her for it. First it was Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who was asked so incessantly about running against Hillary that she finally got a neck tattoo that read “FFS, no!”

Then, the media and the Warren Wing found her successor in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a straight-talker who wasn’t afraid to take on the Obama administration on trade, but didn’t make President Obama out to be a sexist pig in the process. His economic message, dove-ish foreign policy, and anti-corporate politics were supposed to pull Hillary Clinton to the left, but his candidacy was never expected to go anywhere. Even Bernie Sanders never seemed to expect to win.

But then, a couple of funny things happened. First, media outlets began hyping Bernie’s performance in the polls, even though Hillary Clinton still leads him by 29 points in Iowa, and a whopping 40 points in the national average. The latest bit of hype is that Sanders, along with Clinton, is beating Republicans in head-to-head polling.

At the same time, though, Sanders also began drawing some legit big crowds, and for the media, began to make a nice bookend to Donald Trump’s surge in the polls. Along the way, a deep rift has developed between Sanders’ mostly-white supporters and the more diverse Obama coalition, which came to a head a few weeks ago at the Netroots Nation conference. While #BlackLivesMatter protesters wanted to hear Bernie’s plans to address police violence and criminal justice discrimination, he elected to crankily remind them about his civil rights record, and insist that his economic policies were the gateway to solving their problems.

With a week to think about it, Sanders addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference last weekend, and while he paid some lip service to the issues of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the overall gist was more of the same. The few policies he offered fell well short even of those offered by Hillary Clinton (for example, Clinton favors mandatory body cameras, while Sanders merely proposes making them available), and even though he railed against the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, he still, in front of an audience thirsty for action on black issues, maintained that his only litmus test for Supreme Court justices would be overturning Citizens United.

Now, with a second shot at repairing that rift before a largely black audience, Sanders has whiffed again. In a speech to the National Urban League this week, Sanders name-checked the movement that confronted him in Phoenix, but still came up well short in the policy department:

“A growing number of communities throughout this country do not trust the police, and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect. When I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the largest city in the state, one of the things we did — and I believe this very strongly — is we moved toward community policing. Community policing means that police are part of the community, not seen as oppressors in the community, and that is the direction that we have got to move.

Sandra bland, Michael Brown, Eric gasher, Walt — garner, Walter Scott, Freddie grey, we know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. Let us all be very clear, violence and brutality of any kind particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve their communities is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter, and we must value black lives.”

Sanders then took a major detour from his prepared remarks to riff on criminal justice for several minutes, emphasizing things like community policing and prison reform, but still came up well short of the positions Hillary Clinton has taken, and even completely omitted voting rights from his speech. He also left out the body cameras. That contrast was made all the more noticeable by Hillary Clinton’s strong speech on those issues from the very same stage.

Bernie may have gotten the memo, but he didn’t read it too closely. The clear emphasis of his campaign remains “middle-class economics” and the fight against the “billionaire class.” Sandra Bland had a job. What she didn’t have was a chance to ever get to it, because she asked why she had to put out a cigarette in her own car. It wasn’t a billionaire who killed Sam DuBose, it was a middle-class cop. If Bernie Sanders wants to reach out to Obama coalition voters, he’s got to let go of the universality of his policies, and their eventual appeal to black voters. This isn’t that complicated; mandatory body cameras, mandatory federal reporting of profiling statistics, and mandatory federal jurisdiction over all use-of-force investigations are a good, quick start to assuring black voters they might be around to get a job fixing roads.

As someone who agrees with Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) on many issues, it is tempting to wonder what the harm is in getting those issues out, and the answer is none. To the extent that a Sanders candidacy can build support for things like a $15-an-hour minimum wage, it’s a good thing. The problem is that the rift between the Sanders/Warren Wing and the Obama coalition has become deep and bitter, much like the 2008 rift between Hillary’s supporters and then-Senator Obama’s. There are still many Obama supporters who don’t trust Hillary Clinton, who suspect that her advocacy on black issues is opportunistic and audience-specific. Unfortunately, Bernie Sanders isn’t even giving them that much. For any Democratic candidate to turn out the Obama coalition in real force, they’re going to need to put the right solutions to these problems front and center, not at a table near the kitchen.

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