Black lawmakers on Capitol Hill are defending the young activists using confrontation to press top Democratic presidential candidates to tackle the nation's protracted problems of racial injustice.
In recent weeks, members of the Black Lives Matter movement have gone after the leading Democratic hopefuls — most notably during a viral weekend encounter with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats: Where the hell are You? Sanders on Trump pick: This is how a rigged economy works Trump picks Goldman Sachs chief for top economic adviser: report MORE (I-Vt.) — urging them to prioritize criminal justice reform and other race-related issues on the campaign trail.
But a number of black Democrats disagree, arguing that race-based problems have been neglected for too long, even by liberal policymakers, and the activists have tapped into a vein of frustration that justifies their methods.
“They really are speaking to the issues, and we're really long overdue responding to those issues,” Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson-LeeLiberal Dems: Trump filling Cabinet with 'stooges' The right person for State Department is Rudy Giuliani Overnight Regulation: House passes GOP bill targeting last-minute Obama regs MORE (D-Texas) said in a phone interview. “They've been pointed, nonviolent and strong, and I'm not offended.
“They're asking for nothing more than to lift up a system to treat them with justice.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) echoed that message, alluding to recent high-profile cases of young unarmed blacks killed by police officers as proof that America's racial problems persist and demand a specific response from the presidential candidates — liberal and conservative alike. The public debate that’s followed the recent protests, he suggested, merits their controversial tactics.
“For Black Lives Matter activists, the issue is literally a matter of life and death as evidenced by the continued killing of unarmed Black men and women by police officers across the nation,” Johnson said in an email. “When presidential candidates fail to acknowledge how the current criminal system detrimentally impacts Black lives, they [the activists] resort to disruptive tactics to force attention to the issue.
“While disruption is uncomfortable, it does result in candidates acknowledging and addressing the issue with policy proposals,” he added. “When that happens, the need to protest is abated.”
Black Lives Matter, a national but largely decentralized movement, arose in response to the rash of recent police killings around the country, including in New York City, Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. The nonpartisan group bills itself as “an ideological and political intervention” aimed at pressuring lawmakers of all stripes to adopt specific policy prescriptions for advancing “the needs and dreams of black people.” Central to its message is a push to overhaul the criminal justice system and combat the structural racism it says pervades American politics and the culture at large.
The group has done well at attracting attention, largely by targeting the Democratic primary contenders.
Last month, affiliated members stunned a liberal audience gathered in Phoenix for a Netroots Nation conference, shouting down both former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sanders with calls for a greater focus on black empowerment.
Last weekend that scene repeated for Sanders when activists stormed his stage in Seattle, hijacking the microphone and accusing the liberal stalwart of ignoring the issue.
On Tuesday, members of the group threatened a similar demonstration of a Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDNC 'applauds' Obama investigation into Russian hacking Joy Behar: Why do I have to be nice about Trump? Poll: Republicans think media ‘intentionally misled the public’ about polling MORE speech in New Hampshire, where they intended to press the former first lady and New York senator on past positions related to drug enforcement policy and incarcerations, which the activists deem too strict. They were denied access to the event, ushered instead into an overflow room, where Clinton met with them privately after her speech.
Some Democrats, who warn it could ultimately undermine efforts to advance black causes, have criticized the confrontational approach.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, condemned the tactic, saying there's “no evidence” it will “result in any improvements for African-Americans.”
“I don't think that it's acceptable, nor do I think that it's beneficial for African-Americans — or anyone else for that matter — to develop as a tactic the acts of verbal incivility that I saw,” Cleaver said by phone, referring to the Sanders incident in Seattle. “Being civil is far more powerful than being right. What we as African-Americans must keep in mind is we did not achieve the progress that's so visible around the world from tactics of disrespect and nastiness.”
Cleaver was quick to praise the underlying message and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement — “Progress always sits on the backs of those who refuse to accept things as they are,” he said — but countered that the more effective strategy would be to follow the less-confrontational examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Jesus.
“You can get your message out without shouting people down on stage,” he said. “We ought to be civil whenever possible, and frankly it's always possible.”
The leaders of Black Lives Matter have remained unapologetic throughout the debate.
The group did not respond to a request for comment this week. But Marissa Johnson, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle who was among those who nudged Sanders from the stage last Saturday, defended the strategy, telling MSNBC in an interview on Tuesday that “black people are in a state of emergency” demanding a “concrete” policy response from all lawmakers.
“Especially on the left, candidates have this liberal rhetoric and we really need them to match it with their … actions,” Johnson said.
Asked why the group hasn't targeted Republican candidates in the same way, Johnson said there's “no point to confronting the GOP … during the primaries, because GOP members will pretty much tell you flatly that they don't care about black lives.
“Instead we really need to put pressure on people who claim that they care about black lives,” she said.
If the demonstrations have been controversial, they've also yielded early results.
O'Malley, after the Netroots event, quickly adopted a plan to reform the criminal justice system, including proposals to abolish the death penalty, restore the voting rights of felons and reclassifying marijuana to address overcrowded prisons.
Sanders followed suit after the Seattle protest, posting a new “racial justice” page to his campaign website, including calls to demilitarize police forces, expand sensitivity training for local law enforcers and provide more federal funding for police body cameras.
“The goals of the Black Lives movement are absolutely right,” Sanders said Monday at a campaign stop in Oakland. “We are going to end institutional racism.”
The Democrats supporting the activists are hoping a similar momentum follows on Capitol Hill.
Jackson Lee, for one, is pushing legislation with Rep. John Conyers, Jr., (D-Mich.) to promote national accreditation standards for local law enforcers, bolster investigations into police misconduct and study the best practices surrounding police training.
The Black Lives Matter movement, she said, only lends momentum to the cause.
“They make their voices heard for us to respond,” said Jackson Lee. “They want to see visible, tangible changes.”