Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke today in Phoenix at Netroots Nation, a political convention for progressive activists organized by the leftie website DailyKos.com.
They were the only two candidates to appear at the conference's "presidential forum," and both were heckled by protesters from the "Black Lives Matter" movement. O'Malley spoke, and was heckled, first. He tried to respond to protesters, as The Guardian reports:
"Let me say a couple of things," O'Malley began in response. "All of us as Americans have a responsibility to recognise the pain and the grief throughout our country for all of the lives that have been lost to violence, whether at the hands of police or civilians."
His words were greeted by heckling.
O'Malley tried to respond, saying: "This is … let me … sure. I'll just share with you … I'm trying to respond as best I can. No … hey. Look … I know, I know."
Vargas said: "What just happened there? I'm so lost."
O'Malley switched to an inclusive tack. He said: "Every life matters and that is why this issue is important. Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter."
He was greeted, repeatedly, by booing.
Anti-police violence protesters also appeared at O'Malley's announcement of his candidacy in Baltimore back in May. O'Malley, as mayor of Baltimore, pushed just the kind of aggressive, unconstitutional policing that, while remaining popular enough among urban residents not to cost O'Malley or any other big city Democrats supporting such policies their jobs, has led now to a "national conversation" about police violence. O'Malley has a lot to answer to on issues of constitutional policing, police reform, and criminal justice reform. Parroting popular, populist left-wing economic talking points won't be enough for the Democratic candidates not named Clinton.
Bernie Sanders, who doesn't have that kind of intimate, causal connection to the police violence problem in the U.S., was also the target of protesters. Sanders wasn't having it, saying at one point if the protesters didn't want him there that was fine. Via The Guardian again:
Sanders began a prepared introduction – as had been delivered by O'Malley – talking about policies, including media bias and the need for a raised minimum wage. Chants of "black lives matter" and either "save our men" or "say her name" then broke out again.
"Black lives of course matter," Sanders said. "I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity, but if you don't want me to be here that's OK. I don't want to out-scream people."
The crowd allowed Sanders to continue, and he stood and walked the stage to make points about prisons policy and other social issues, repeating his campaign theme of calling for "a strong grassroots movement which I call a revolution" and calling for more people, and young people in particular, to vote.
As activists began chanting again – changing their refrain to "I want Bernie Sanders to say my name" – he attempted to answer questions, eventually asking Vargas "What are we doing here?" and "Are you in charge here?"
Gaining some sort of hold on proceedings, Sanders said: "Black people are dying in this country because we have a criminal justice system which is out of control, a system in which over 50% of young African American kids are unemployed. It is estimated that a black baby born today has a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system."
One of the protesters who took the stage while O'Malley was speaking said he wanted "to hear concrete actions" and an "action plan." Based on reporting of the event, neither candidate provided concrete proposals for police reforms. Such proposals, in fact, have been thin in coming from any candidate on the Democratic side. The Democratic candidates appear more interested in hitting the right notes in their economic populism as well as 2012's theme of the "war on women" then tackling the real issues of police and criminal justice reform to which groups like "Black Lives Matter" are drawing attention.
Black Lives Matter protesters have, so far, not appeared to protest many of Hillary Clinton's events. It's unclear if that's a function of a lack of interest or the security surrounding Clinton making it more difficult to protest freely. Clinton's historical positions on criminal justice have been awful from a reform perspective. Her husband apologized for the policies he supported that led to the problem of hyper-incarceration in the black community when he was president in the '90s…last week, nearly 15 years after leaving office. Hillary Clinton supported such policies when she was in the Senate in the early 2000s and has never apologized for them. She also holds a commanding lead over her opponents for the nomination. While candidates like O'Malley may be incapable of adopting the issue of criminal justice reform authentically, perhaps other Democratic candidates aren't as handicapped by their history. Given the attention and emotion directed at criminal justice and police reform, the issue may be one of just a few with which a candidate could substantively chip away at Clinton's lead.