AS IT HAS grown in volume and influence, the movement reaffirming the value of black lives has raised its cry for racial justice from the streets and the internet to the race for the Democratic nomination, especially in the New York primary, where talk of police accountability, mass incarceration, and structural inequality has become an integral part of the candidates’ pitch to voters.
At the Democratic debate on Thursday night, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spoke frankly about racism, with Clinton calling on white people to “recognize that there is systemic racism,” and Sanders again criticizing Clinton’s 1996 comments about “superpredators,” saying that “it was a racist term and everyone knew it was a racist term.”
But while competition for the so-called black vote continues to heat up ahead of Tuesday’s primaries, and the generational gap that has defined the primary race persists, members of Black Lives Matter remain determined to keep all candidates in check on matters of race and racism.
Both Democratic candidates supported Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and both expressed regret over the devastating consequences it continues to have over the lives of African-Americans. Even as they court black voters, however, the candidates have also made statements that offended them, such as Sanders’ “ghetto” gaffe during the Flint debate or his repeated dismissal of the “deep South,” where he lost to Clinton among black voters by huge margins.
This week, at the 25th anniversary convention of the National Action Network (NAN), a civil rights organization led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, both candidates received their share of criticism. “Both said things that are harmful; our role is to hold them accountable,” the political strategist Angela Rye told The Intercept. In her speech before the convention, Rye continued to press the point. “The Democrats have to be accountable to us,” she told the audience, citing the over 90 percent of black voters who support the party and calling on them not to disengage after President Obama leaves office. “Our vote matters,” said Rye, who began her speech by calling herself “unapologetically black” and “super unapologetically black right now.”
“White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk, about the seen and unseen barriers that you face every day,” said Clinton, who has been sharply criticized for her tone-deaf response to a question about her own white privilege. “We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences.”
She also paid tribute, one by one, to the mothers of several black victims of police and racist violence, many in attendance, who have endorsed her call for gun control and campaigned for her both in person and in a “Mothers of the movement” video. (Sanders, for his part, has been endorsed by Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, and released his own video featuring her and calling for police accountability.)
The audience at the NAN convention — made up mostly of older civil rights activists — reflected a generational divide in the black community that already began to show its seams in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, where young activists accused Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of opportunism, and the Black Lives Matter protests acquired the tagline “not your grandmother’s civil rights movement.”
The convention felt like a mix between a church service and your grandmother’s high school reunion, with participants in their Sunday best chatting excitedly as speaker after speaker took to the pulpit. There was much talk of “our young people,” but few of them were actually there. One speaker made a Rolodex joke and wondered if the younger generation even knows what that is. “Are there any millennials in the room?” He got no answer.
Later that evening, at the Sanders rally in Washington Square Park, the crowd was decidedly younger, though overwhelmingly white. Some of the black supporters in attendance said they were there because Clinton’s message didn’t resonate with them. “She doesn’t know how to speak to the youth, he knows how to speak to the youth,” Skylar Fray, a 22 year-old wearing a “Bernie Fucking Sanders” T-shirt, told The Intercept, praising his appearance on a popular hip hop radio station and his conversation with a famous rapper. “He spoke to Ebro on Hot 97, I listen to Hot 97. Killer Mike interviewed Bernie, I listen to Killer Mike.”
Even Sanders’s most notable older black supporters — like Cornel West or Spike Lee, who spoke at the Washington Square Park rally — try to keep it young. “Is Brooklyn in the house?” Lee asked, introducing Sanders to a roaring crowd of 28,000 that resembled more the audience at a Jay Z concert than that of a campaign rally of a 74-year-old Jewish man from Vermont.
“We gotta represent,” Lee said, cracking up along with the crowd. “Status quo gotta go. The same old same old, enough is enough. Are you tired of the okay doke? Tired of the roody poops? Are you tired of being jerked around?”
“April 19, better show up!” he concluded, before leading the crowd in a chant of “Bernie Sanders” as Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” started blasting from speakers across the packed square.
Sanders’s reception at the convention was mostly friendly, though Sharpton did yawn at one point during his speech and a man in a suit, with a stern expression, mumbled to his neighbor, “don’t trust him.” As he often does when speaking to African-American crowds, Sanders reminded the audience that he had endorsed the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, who was in the room, and that he marched on Washington in 1963.
Katherine Nichson, a 95-year-old listening to Sanders’ speech, said she found him “rousing,” and that his recollection of the march reminded her of “those days, and all those people that were there and are not anymore,” she said slowly, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses. “I’ve been to all the marches, that’s why my legs are bad now,” she said, pointing to the walking aid next to her chair. The Black Lives Matter protests were “good,” she added. “But they gotta take it seriously, this is not play time.”
She wasn’t sure whom her grandchildren and two great-grandchildren would vote for — or whether they would vote at all — but she is voting for Clinton, she said. “I didn’t hear him say anything about carrying on what Obama has done. She said she’s going to carry it on,” Nichson said. “She said she’s going to keep up the legacy of Obamacare.”
Upholding Obama’s legacy was a recurring theme at the convention. Nichson, whose father was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, a black infantry unit in WWI, said she once wrote to Michelle Obama about her concern for veterans. The first lady replied with a “very nice letter” addressed to her and included a portrait of the first family. The Obama’s family portraits were also for sale at the entrance to the convention — along with those of Sharpton, Malcom X, Nina Simone, and Sanders. I didn’t see a Clinton portrait.
Throughout the event, the many references to President Obama’s achievements drew more enthusiastic cheers than either presidential candidate, and Sharpton himself summed up the nostalgia lingering in the room when he joked: “We are in a place we’ve never been before in American history. We have never seen a white president succeed a black president.”
References to President Obama were rare, and mostly critical, at a protest held on Thursday evening outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan, where the three Republican candidates were speaking at a gala. The rally, which was organized over social media as an effort to “shut down Trump,” drew hundreds of protesters outside the hotel, near Grand Central station. Thirty-one people had been arrested by the end of the night.
“Trump has directly offended several groups: Mexicans, undocumented immigrants, African-Americans, Muslim Americans, women, protesters; and he’s been extremely offensive,” Carmen Perez, an activist with Justice League NYC, told The Intercept ahead of the rally. “This only gives us in the movement the ability to see beyond our differences and come together, collectively, to take down a person who’s fueling so much hatred in this country.”
One large group of protesters recast the rally on social media as #ShutDownTrump4Akai — a reference to Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man who was shot dead by police in the stairwell of his building in 2014. Peter Liang, the New York police officer who killed him, was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year, but his sentencing, which was originally scheduled for Thursday morning, was postponed as his lawyers tried, and failed, to have a mistrial declared.
Although a handful of people sported Sanders pins, the rally was not meant to endorse any particular candidate, as organizers repeatedly declared over loudspeakers. Instead, it reflected the critical spirit and political maturity of the movement for racial justice that has grown across the country over the last couple of years, several participants said. Regardless of who wins, they insisted, their anti-racism work will continue, as will their demand that elected officials be held accountable.
Michaela Warnsley, a 30-year-old behavioral therapist at the rally, said she voted for Obama in 2008, but that recent attacks on voting rights, reproductive rights, and fellow minorities have convinced her that her political energy is better spent on the “grassroots.” Her generation is growing “progressively progressive,” she said, and smarter about scrutinizing candidates, also thanks to social media.
“I try to vote for what a candidate stands for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to follow through, so I really try to focus more on the movement of the people, because really, it shouldn’t matter at the end of the day who we elect, if the power is still with us,” she said.
“The movement that already exists is going to continue to build, past the primary, up until November, and past November. Everyone is paying attention to us,” she added. “That’s why I’m not really focusing on the election per se, because that’s not the end of it.”
Correction: April 16, 2016
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that both Democratic candidates voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. Bernie Sanders voted for it, and Hillary Clinton, who was then first lady, publicly supported it.