Black Lives vs. Jeb Bush: How candidates are dealing with the movement

Members of the 'Black Lives Matter' movement are disrupting campaign rallies to push presidential candidates to directly address issues of race.

David Becker/Reuters
Tenisha Martin of Las Vegas, holding her daughter Maddie, yells 'Black lives matter!' after Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush spoke at a town hall meeting in North Las Vegas, Nev., Aug. 12, 2015.

The Black Lives Matter movement strikes again.

A Jeb Bush campaign rally in North Las Vegas was cut short Wednesday after Mr. Bush faced a series of questions about race and inequality in the criminal justice system from members of the anti-racist group, the Los Angeles Times reported. After giving his response – that leaders need to engage with disenfranchised communities, and that he himself has a record of doing so – the Republican candidate ended the town hall without delivering his usual closing statement.

As he left, "a few dozen protesters raised their fists and began chanting, 'Black Lives Matter!' " according to the Times.

In the face of rising racial tensions following a church shooting, church burnings, and fatal police encounters, candidates for the nation’s top office struggle to respond to issues of race in their campaigns.

On Saturday, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a Seattle rally for Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, and on Wednesday, five members of the group met with Hillary Clinton in Keene, N.H. The group also disrupted the Netroots Nation convention on July 20 in Phoenix, Ariz., where Mr. Sanders and another Democratic candidate, Martin O’Malley, had planned to “impress some of the party’s most influential liberal activists,” The Christian Science Monitor reported.

These disruptions are part of a deliberate campaign. Presidential hopefuls must address racial disparities and community tensions, say the movement’s organizers.

"In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for Office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people,"according to a recent statement on the movement’s political affiliations. "We will continue to hold politicians and political parties accountable for their policies and platforms." 

The subject of race and racial disparity has led to challenging, even awkward moments for some of the candidates.

Mr. O’Malley earned some boos and heckles from protesters at the Netroots convention when he replied to their chants by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.”

The former Maryland governor later apologized, insisting he meant no disrespect. But, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explained, " 'Black lives matter' is a statement of specific concern; police violence is most acute against black Americans, and so activists stress the importance of their lives. To reply with 'all lives matter' is to suggest there’s no specific problem of police abuse targeted at black Americans.... It sounds like a dismissal, and that’s how it was received."

Following the Netroots fiasco, Sanders tried to quiet the crowd by emphasizing the need to address wealth and income inequality, noting that minorities – particularly blacks and Hispanics – face high rates of poverty and unemployment. It was an approach that critics said showed Sanders' lack of understanding about the black lives movement.

"Portrayals of racial injustice as merely an offshoot of economic injustice or the implication that solutions to economic inequality will take care of racism represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how race operates in our country," Anna Galland, the executive director of Civic Action, told the Monitor.

Since then, however, both Democratic candidates have taken concrete steps to directly address racial issues: A week ago, O’Malley issued a call for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal voting rights as part of a platform intended to address structural racism, while Sanders on Monday released a concrete racial justice platform – one that goes beyond economic reform – and pointed out that he had already hired a racial justice activist as his press secretary.

That is the response that members of the Black Lives Matter movement want to see, Black Lives co-founder Alicia Garza said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. And until every presidential candidate – Democratic and Republican – has presented a clear position on racial issues, the disruptive protests and all the rest will continue, Ms. Garza added.

"Every single candidate in this election cycle is going to be pushed, and the tactics are not all going to look the same," she said. "But we are going to make sure that every single candidate addresses what their plan is to make sure that we can breathe, to make sure that our lives do actually matter."

Indeed, race is likely to continue to be a crucial issue for all the candidates as the presidential primaries, and then the elections, draw closer. As Mike Muse, a political engagement strategist and co-founder of Muse Recordings, wrote in an op-ed for CNBC:

If the candidates are forced to state their positions on race in America, then voters will understand what will inform their policy decisions in addressing issues affecting African Americans, including higher rates of incarceration than whites, longer sentences for the same crimes as whites and far higher rates of unemployment compared to whites.... This is the time for all the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to speak to the issues of race. This is courage in leadership.

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