During the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, Black community organizer Tia Oso took the stage to demand the 2016 Democratic presidential primary candidates stand up for Black lives. She did so following chants of “Say Her Name” from me, Elle Hearns, Patrisse Cullors, and about 30 other activists and supporters in the audience. Just a few days prior, Sandra Bland had died in police custody. We knew that with our action, we were agitating fault lines around race within the Democratic Party.
It’s been four years since then. Four years of organizers across the country demanding more from Democrats and the progressive movement. But we are still waiting for politicians to do more than just say their names. As we begin this year’s Netroots gathering, in the middle of a wide-open Democratic primary race, it’s clear candidates need to get real and get specific with Black and brown voters.
Although we faced criticism from people who said our 2015 action was unstrategic and too aggressive, that disruption helped to change the political landscape. In the days following, we saw a shift in rhetoric from O’Malley, Sanders, and Hilary Clinton, who wasn’t even at the event. We also sparked an ongoing conversation about how the U.S. political left responds to institutional racism and police violence.
At the time, writer Dani McClain said, “The action kicked off a necessary conversation about the Democratic candidates’ reluctance to address racism directly, the problem with saying ‘all lives matter,’ and why economic populism devoid of a race and gender analysis will neither satisfy nor mobilize a sizeable chunk of progressive voters.”
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Fast forward to Netroots 2019, when many of the Democratic presidential candidates are speaking about racial disparities in our criminal justice system and the need for reform. But few, if any, of the reforms being put forward—such as the body cameras and community review boards we’ve seen enacted over the last few years—have addressed root causes. These reforms haven’t stopped the police from racial profiling, harassing, assaulting, and killing Black people in the name of “safety.” And now that criminal justice reform has been co-opted by the likes of Jared Kushner and the Koch brothers looking to get rich off mass incarceration 2.0, progressive Democrats must go beyond reforms if they want to distinguish themselves.
So far, the only presidential candidate speaking directly to holding police accountable is Julián Castro. In fact, his proposal goes further than other candidates’ do, calling for demilitarizing the police and easing restrictions that make it difficult to hold violent cops accountable.
Ending mass incarceration is important, but what are the candidates proposing to protect Black and brown communities from over-policing, police brutality and excessive force, police gun-violence, and police killings? FBI reports prove that police in the United States shoot and kill far more people than police in other countries.
Democrats must answer this question, because much of this criminalization of our communities is a legacy of policies Democrats once championed. In the words of Tracey Corder, racial justice campaign director for the Center of Popular Democracy: “What Democrats must do is lay out a vision for public safety [that] prioritizes the well-being of people in our budgets. That begins with repealing the ’94 Crime Bill and reinvesting the over $30 billion spent since 1995 directly into communities most impacted by the punitive legal system.”
Netroots Nation 2019 presents an opportunity for our nation’s most diverse set of presidential candidates to learn from the failure of Democrats and the progressive movement in previous years. The courage, sacrifice, persistence, and power of young Black activists has changed the way politicians talk about race and how they engage with Black voters. Movements led by Black people—especially women, queer people, and trans folks—helped create the conditions for one of the most progressive Democratic presidential fields ever. But a progressive Democrat will not win the nomination or the White House in 2020 without significant turnout from young people of color and enthusiastic support from trusted leadership in those communities.