Black Lives Matter movement to play elevated role at convention

Bonnie Cash

The message of Black Lives Matter will be woven throughout the 2020 Democratic National Convention, starting with a focus on racial injustice during the first night of programming.

The plan by convention organizers to elevate the Black Lives Matter movement reflects the party’s growing embrace of its calls for action on racial inequality and police brutality over the past four years, particularly since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd.

The lineup of prime-time programming for the convention doesn’t list a time slot for Black Lives Matter activists as of Thursday, but the Democratic National Committee (DNC) indicated there would be a focus on the movement and racial injustice throughout the entirety of the convention.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has given voice to the deep-seated inequality that has plagued our nation since its inception,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a statement. “The Democratic Party shares in their commitment to justice and hears their demands for change. When we nominate Joe Biden to be our standard-bearer, we will not miss this moment to ensure those values are reflected in everything we do.”

Racial injustice will be a key part of the “We the People” programming on Monday, according to the DNC and Biden campaign. Speakers that evening include Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and former first lady Michelle Obama.

“[As] things become more mainstream, part of what happens is politicians take it on. I don’t think that we will be devoid of hearing statements about Black Lives Matter,” said Rashawn Ray, a governance studies fellow at The Brookings Institution.

“Rather than getting four or five minutes, or 15 minutes over the course three or four days, it becomes a part of the narrative,” he added.

In the four years since the 2016 convention, the Black Lives Matter movement has become more mainstream, stepping into the national spotlight most recently during the protests that erupted after Floyd’s death.

The nationwide demonstrations propelled issues around racial injustice and police brutality from “being top-five issues to top-two or -three issues,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

“It is first and foremost in the minds of many people,” she added.

Robert Patterson, a professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, said the combination of the pandemic and Floyd’s killing made more Americans aware of the injustices faced by poor and Black communities on a daily basis.

COVID-19 highlighted the “stark inequality” of the pandemic’s effect on minority communities, Patterson said, and lockdown orders meant people at home were flooded with images of Floyd’s killing and other recent cases of Black Americans killed by police.

Across some cities, protesters have demonstrated daily since late May, and polls show public sentiment on racial issues during that period has strengthened the Black Lives Matter movement.

A record 69 percent of Americans said Black people and other minorities do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in July. The survey marked a 15-point increase from 2014, around the time of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, when just 54 percent of Americans said the same.

Last month’s poll also found that 63 percent of respondents said they support the Black Lives Matter movement, including 92 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents, a key voting bloc that Biden is looking to win over.

Four years ago, when the party nominated Hillary Clinton, the “Mothers of the Movement” spoke on the convention floor. They highlighted issues of racial inequality and police brutality by sharing stories of their Black sons killed by gun violence or police. Many of those women have since made the leap from activist to elected official.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who spoke at the Democratic convention four years ago, unseated former Rep. Karen Handel (R) in 2018. McBath’s congressional run was motivated by the killing of her teenage son in 2012.

And Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin who was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012, is now running to serve as a Miami-Dade County commissioner.

“They are front and center and part of this, and I think that is something that I think we really can’t dismiss or gloss over — that Black Lives Matter is firmly a part of the Democratic party,” Ray said.

The convention will also mark a historic moment for the nation when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, accepts the party’s vice presidential nomination. If elected, she would be the first woman and first person of color to serve in that role.

During their first joint appearance as running mates, Harris referenced the Black Lives Matter movement.

“As Joe always points out, this election is about more than policies. It’s about who we are as a country. And I’ll admit, over the past four years, there have been moments when I’ve worried about our future,” she said Wednesday. “But whenever I’ve had my doubts, I think of you — the American people. … People of every age, and color, and creed, who are finally declaring in one voice that Black Lives Matter.”

Asked if Biden will speak about the Black Lives Matter movement during his acceptance speech, a campaign spokesperson said the vice president will lay out his vision for a “more inclusive country.”

“In the midst of a national reckoning over systemic racism, the pandemic has shone a bright light on racial disparities in health and health care — as Black and Brown Americans have suffered and died from the coronavirus at rates far higher than white Americans,” Biden campaign national press secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement. “Joe Biden will lay out his vision for building a stronger, resilient, and more inclusive country where people of color are finally welcomed as full participants in the American dream.”

Biden has repeatedly said the election is a battle for the “soul of the nation.” But in order for the “soul of the nation to be saved,” Georgetown’s Patterson said, Americans must first acknowledge the nation’s history of systemic racism.

“I think it’s important that there’s a lot of discussion within the campaign underscoring the critical moment in America’s history,” Patterson said, “where we have to reckon with the fact that the soul of the nation is on the ballot.

“And not only is that accurate, but for the soul of the nation to be saved, the nation also has to acknowledge the history in which Black lives have not mattered and need to make Black lives matter symbolically and materially across America’s institutions.”

Tags 2020 conventions 2020 Democratic convention Bernie Sanders Black Lives Matter Black Lives Matter DNC Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Karen Handel Lucy McBath Michelle Obama Tom Perez
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