Democratic presidential candidates got a pointed question Tuesday night that tested their response to an issue that has caused some of them headaches with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” asked Sterling Arthur Wilkins, a law school student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in a video question submitted through Facebook.
Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont senator, was the first to answer, and did so unequivocally.
“Black lives matter,” Sanders said, and then paused as scattered cheers echoed through the debate hall in Las Vegas. He went on to explain the comment.
“The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot,” Sanders said. “We need to combat institutional racism, from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system, in which we have more people in jail than China.”
Sanders has had a contentious relationship with activists representing the movement of largely younger African-Americans. He has taken steps to try to repair his relationship with minority voters, but his poll numbers among blacks are still low.
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, did not answer the debate question directly. He was booed over the summer when he said “all lives matter” at a liberal activist summit in Phoenix, and he subsequently apologized. Republican candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have scoffed at the idea that there is anything controversial about saying “all lives matter.”
O’Malley told CNN’s debate moderator, Anderson Cooper, only that “the Black Lives Matter movement is making … a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also did not answer the original question, in part because Cooper asked her a different version, asking her what she would do that President Obama has not.
“I think that President Obama has been a great moral leader on these issues and has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed by Republicans at every turn. So what we need to be doing is not only reforming criminal justice … including things like body cameras, but we also need to be following the recommendations of the commission that President Obama empaneled on policing. There is an agenda there that we need to be following up on,” Clinton said.
Clinton has had perhaps the most intensely charged interactions with Black Lives Matter activists, in large part because she is such a heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee. Clinton said “all lives matter” in the spring at an African-American church in Missouri, sparking a backlash.
Subsequently, she met with a group of activists in Boston on the sidelines of a campaign event there. The conversation was filmed by the activists and released, and it showed one of the activists, Julius Jones, criticizing Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for the affect of the Clinton administration’s policies on African-Americans. Clinton’s anti-crime policies “were actually extensions of white supremacist violence against communities of color,” Jones said.
Clinton pushed back and told the group that it did not have a specific enough policy agenda to remedy the problems of police brutality and criminal code injustice that they were protesting against. That was the backdrop for her reference Tuesday night to a White House-created panel that is focusing on what can be done legislatively or by executive action.
Clinton also touted bipartisan progress in Congress on criminal justice reform.
“We need to tackle mass incarceration, and this may be the only bipartisan issue in the Congress this year. We actually have people on both sides of the aisle who have reached the same conclusion, that we cannot keep imprisoning more people than anybody else in the world,” she said.
And Clinton tied the Black Lives Matter conversation to her push for early childhood education.
“We’ve got to do more about the lives of these children,” she said. “That is really hard to do if you don’t have early childhood education. If you don’t have schools that are able to meet the needs of the people, or good housing.”
Clinton finished by saying that “we need a new New Deal for communities of color.” She did not elaborate on what she meant by that. Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists again last week, this time in a closed-door setting.
On Twitter, some who support or have been leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement complained that the question posed was not a substantive one and that the debate spent only a few minutes on their agenda.
“CNN, is there really only going to be one question about race tonight?” wrote activist DeRay McKesson.