For weeks leading up to the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Black Lives Matter activists wondered if the candidates would be asked about racism and structural inequality — and about their movement to dismantle both.
The question they got, posed by CNN anchor Don Lemon, was something less than they had hoped for after getting face-time with all the major Democratic candidates: "Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?"
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders replied first, affirming the movement's slogan.
“And the reason those words matter is the African American community knows that, on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she's going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot," Sanders said. "We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China."
Many Black Lives Matter activists, including Campaign Zero activist DeRay Mckesson, said Sanders' answer was strong, although some activists voiced displeasure with the amount of time the candidates were given to articulate their points on racial inequality.
"Sanders highlighting the need to combat institutional racism and the broken criminal justice was on point,' Mckesson tweeted.
Sanders was the only candidate to specifically cite some of the concerns of Black Lives Matter in his opening statements.
“Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth,” Sanders said, without introducing himself as the others did. “African-American youth unemployment is 51%. Hispanic youth unemployment is 36%. It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids."
Clinton was asked a different question and didn’t have to address the “all lives matter” versus “black lives matter. Instead, Clinton was asked what she could do for black people that Barack Obama, the country's first black president, could not.
Clinton said to applause that Obama “has been a great moral leader” whose agenda has been obstructed by a Republican controlled Congress.
“What we need to be doing is not only reforming criminal justice," Clinton said. "I have talked about that at some length, including things like body cameras, but we also need to be following the recommendations of the commission that President Obama impanelled on policing. There is an agenda there that we need to be following up on."
Clinton echoed statements she has made in the past recommending the Obama administration’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing, calling them a “good start.”
"Similarly, we need to tackle mass incarceration, and this may be the only bipartisan issue in the congress this year," Clinton continued. "We actually have people on both sides of the aisle who have reached the same conclusion, that we can not keep imprisoning more people than anybody else in the world."
Some activists expressed disappointment the issue of police brutality failed to come up in a meaningful way during the debate.
"More unarmed, non-violent African Americans have been killed by American police this year than were lynched in any of the past 85 years," prominent organizer and writer Shaun King told BuzzFeed News in a statement late Tuesday. "It's a crisis that deserves attention not just in our debates, but with substantive policies. This year is on pace to have more Americans killed by police, over 1,200, than any year on record. This is exponentially more than any developed nation in the world. I was disappointed that the issue didn't get more attention in the debate."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also said that “black lives matter,” adding “the point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, of people of color."
O'Malley, who has also met with the activists, defended his record as mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland.
"I did not make our city immune to setbacks," O'Malley said. "But I attended a lot of funerals, including one for a family of seven who were firebombed in their sleep for picking up the phone in a poor African-American neighborhood and calling the police because of drug dealers on their corner."
"We've saved over a thousand lives in Baltimore in the last 15 years of people working together," O'Malley continued. "And the vast majority of them were young and poor and black. It wasn't easy on any day. But we saved lives and we gave our city a better future, improving police and community relations every single day that I was in office."
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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