On Saturday, at Netroots Nation, activists and organizers attended a presidential "forum" with former Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The event started off smoothly, though O'Malley faced a couple difficult questions about being heckled earlier this year during his presidential announcement. Then the protests started.
The activists said their urgency and passion arose from two moments this week that they wanted everyone at the conference — including O'Malley and Sanders — to understand: the death of Sandra Bland on Monday in a jail cell where police say she committed suicide, and the one-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, who was killed in a struggle with police in New York City. Garner's death galvanized the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Most attendees of the progressive conference — including O'Malley and Sanders — had no quarrel with the protesters' agenda.
After the event, Angela Peoples, one of the co-directors of Get Equal, said the activists wanted to hear concrete steps and actions from presidential candidates on what they're going to do to not just stop police violence and deaths in police custody but also what they're going to do about reflecting the ethos of "black lives matter" in their campaigns.
She said Sanders talking about income inequality isn't enough.
"We cannot talk about income inequality as if that's going to be the silver bullet that protects black and brown lives when they're in police custody or when they're being profiled and killed by the police," she said.
The protesters got invited onstage with Vargas and O'Malley — where they basically took over the event.
O'Malley started to respond, and said, "Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter," which didn't go over too well.
Then O'Malley's portion of the event — after only one question — was over. A photo of a screen onstage showed an apology to O'Malley.
Then it was time for Bernie Sanders — whose supporters were out in full force in Phoenix this weekend, but still wasn't as huge a hit with the protesters.
Sanders spoke some about Black Lives Matter, through largely the economic angle he focuses on.
Sanders was interrupted, too, at length.
Sanders was also asked at length about immigration policy — something that played a big role in the weekend's conference.
Alejandra Pablos, a 30-year-old Mexican-American activist from Tucson, said she spent two years in immigration detention, where she said she suffered gravely. She was there to reflect the immigration side of the movement.
"It's all about black lives matter, but we wanted to address undocumented life, especially here in Arizona," she said. "Families are being ripped apart and terrorized daily by Border Patrol."
Pablos said she felt the candidates could have shown more compassion. "If we could hear a unique apology from someone it's not going to bring back our families but just show some compassion," she said.
Ciara Taylor, 26, with Dream Defenders out of Miami, said too often there is silence on the left over whether black lives matter.
"After Sandra Bland was killed, we've come to this conference, we haven't heard anything about her or anything from white progressives who say they're on our side saying something has to be done." Of the candidates, including Hillary Clinton who did not attend the conference, she said, "It's not enough to say black lives matter; we want it reflected in your policies and your platforms."
Sanders' interview ran out of time, too.
The protests continued outside the room, though.
After the protests, many activists echoed the words of Tia Oso, who took the mic onstage.
Many of those activists said the fact that #BlackLivesMatter issues were not prominent at Netroots was a sign that it was more about the progressive organization not featuring black and brown voices enough.
Netroots, which sought to make immigration and Latino issues front and center because the conference was in Arizona (even taking a group of members on a border tour), released a statement after the protests saying it stands in solidarity with all people seeking human rights.
"With today's town hall, our aim was to give presidential candidates a chance to respond to the issues facing the many diverse communities represented here. Although we wish the candidates had more time to respond to the issues, what happened today is reflective of an urgent moment that America is facing today," the statement read in part.
In its statement, Netroots said that the conference is headed to St. Louis in 2016, where it plans "to work with activists there just as we did in Phoenix with local leaders, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to amplify issues like racial profiling and police brutality in a major way."
But the activists who repeatedly shouted down the candidates, chanting, singing, and challenging them to do better, weren't up for waiting a year, particularly as it related to the deaths of black women, which they said are often marginalized in favor of the stories of black men.
"The voices and the stories of black women and girls, especially trans black women, are marginalized and we don't hear their stories," Taylor said.
"So we really wanted to set the precedent in this debate that all black women and black girls matter to us and they should matter to everyone."
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at email@example.com.
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