Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders, candidate for the US presidency, spoke at the annual Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, Arizona. By all accounts, it did not go well for him. An organized group of Black Lives Matter protesters called on Senator Sanders to speak to the issue of black women and men being summarily executed by police in alarming numbers across the country. In particular, a group of women led by Tia Oso called for Sanders — and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, who spoke before Sanders — to speak the names of black women either killed by the police or who died while in police custody: Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, and Sandra Bland. Neither candidate reacted well to the protesters. Sanders announced, “Of course black lives matter,” before continuing with his stump speech about economic inequity, stating that he would address the concerns of the protests after he gave his stump speech. Bad move. Far too often, oppressed communities, whether they be people of color or queer folks, have had to hear the old bromide from white progressives “after the revolution, we’ll deal with your issues,” their concerns pushed aside as an afterthought. Senator Sanders should have known better.
It could have been a teachable moment for the Senator, except that apparently it was not. This weekend, he was about to address a group of supporters in Seattle when again a group of Black Lives Matter protesters confronted him. He did not engage with them, instead allowing the organizers of the event to try to wrest control of the microphone and situation. Ultimately, the Senator left the stage without speaking, appearing as if he could not be bothered.
Senator Sanders is making a huge mistake, the same one that Ralph Nader made in 2000. Both men run, or have run, largely single-issue campaigns. Nader mostly concerned himself with campaign financial reform and the two-party system for elections. Sanders largely addresses income inequality. Nader felt annoyed when people of color asked him about issues pertinent to their communities (racial injustice, immigration, etc.) or when LGBT folks asked about marriage equality — quite a fantasy just 15 years ago — working and housing protections, etc. In all cases, Nader balked, at best making patronizing statements, the equivalent of “we’ll deal with your issues after the revolution.” At worst, he never mentioned the issues at all. Senator Sanders appears to be following this same misguided path, sticking to his stump speech while refusing to acknowledge the pressing issues of the day facing the black community: police killings happening at an alarming rate.
I was never a huge fan of Ralph Nader, so his patronizing attitudes frankly never surprised me. But I do like Senator Sanders, so I’m disappointed that he has not handled himself better. I get it, in terms of sticking to one issue. If you want to convince people of your point of view, repeat it over and over and over again until you are blue in the face. The Republicans are famous for this. For example, we now call Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs because Republicans have foisted that term on the media and public repeatedly, until it has finally stuck, whether they are truly “entitlements” or not. They aren’t. We pay into them. But Republicans effectively changed the debate on that issue — and many more — simply by establishing a line and sticking to it.
Senator Sanders is taking a page from their playbook and I say more power to him. If he were organizing a national organization that dealt solely with the issue of income inequality, such rigidity would be justified. But he’s not. He’s running for president. Presidential candidates have to speak to all of the issues of the day, whether they want to or not. Otherwise, they run the risk of appearing above and aloof issues they refuse to address, like Black Lives Matter.
Bernie has to diversify his platform, in other words, if he wants to be taken seriously by all segments of the population. Of course income inequality is an important issue. So is the environment. So is Black Lives Matter. So are anti discrimination laws for LGBT folks. All of these are issues important to me. He has to address each of these and offer his solutions for these ills. President Obama, when he ran his first race in 2008, got it exactly right when he said that a president has to be able to work on more than one thing at a time. So far, Senator Sanders seems unable or unwilling to do this, thus calling into question his ability to effectively lead the country.
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