How #BlackLivesMatter at Netroots Nation has already changed more than a presidential election

By: Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director, Democracy for America.

The Netroots Nation presidential candidate town hall made clear that the progressive movement and the Democratic Party need to do more, right now, to support the Movement for Black Lives.

I say that as someone who was in the convention hall watching as young, powerful Black women demanded that progressive leaders actively address the state of emergency that has exploded over the last year as friends, family, and neighbors have been murdered at the hands of a structurally racist criminal justice system. As the #BlackLivesMatter protest at Netroots Nation emphasized in asking the presidential candidates to #SayHerName, the arrest and death of Sandra Bland is just the latest tragic example. 

Of course, it matters that Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders immediately failed to empathize with and adequately respond to the demands of these organizers. Both O’Malley and Sanders missed a clear opportunity to lead a united progressive movement dedicated to actively confronting power wherever it exists -- from the Wall Street banks that are rigging our economy to a criminal justice system that is brutalizing Black and Brown people.

However, the most important effect those brave voices in the Movement for Black Lives are having isn’t on the 2016 presidential candidates, but on the broader progressive movement.

Democracy for America (DFA) has over one million grassroots members around the country in all fifty states, and for ten years we’ve worked to elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot. As the Movement for Black Lives has grown, we’ve helped battle police militarization in the wake of the protests after the killing of Mike Brown, raised money for community organizations in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death, joined our allies to financially support this month’s Movement for Black Lives convening of organizers in Cleveland, and supported successful local efforts to increase voter turnout in Ferguson’s city council elections this past April.

But real solidarity means not just taking action in response to racial injustice and police brutality, but doing everything we can to connect the fight against structural racism and our country’s culture of white supremacy to every aspect of the work we do. And, after hearing the calls of our friends at Netroots Nation, that’s exactly what we intend to do at DFA.

Going forward, DFA will be changing the questions we ask the candidates we endorse for offices from dog catcher to the President. Just as we’ve asked candidates where they stand on LGBTQ rights, comprehensive immigration reform, making college debt-free, and expanding Social Security, we’re going to ask every candidate who wants our support how they will stand with the Movement for Black Lives and what they will do to confront structural racism and our culture of white supremacy.  We want the candidates we endorse to not only say that #BlackLivesMatter, we want these candidates to know that progressives -- including those in organizations with largely white memberships and staff like DFA -- expect them to stand up to, name, and address systemic racism as fundamental and foundational to the movement to end income inequality.

We also know that if candidates don’t speak out and campaign on issues of racial justice, it will be exceedingly difficult to build the political will to aggressively combat the deep-seated racism that underlies our most powerful cultural and political institutions. A good example: Often, racial justice issues aren’t included in the battery of questions pollsters ask voters, making it very unlikely that candidates will see the many opportunities to use their campaign, not just to win office, but to respond to the state of emergency that exists in Black and Brown communities right now. 

That’s why, as an organization that works closely with candidates running for office, DFA is committing to  actively help campaigns poll on racial justice issues, amplify messaging that takes on structural racism, and work with campaigns to communicate with voters more often and more effectively about race.

Most importantly, DFA wants to work to change the kind of candidates that are running for office. According to a recent project by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 90% of the 42,000 office holders in the U.S. are white and 65% are white men. Clearly, the skills and talents of progressive women, and especially progressive women of color, are not being tapped for the critical problems our country needs to solve. 

We can no longer afford to exclude some of our best and brightest leaders; we need leaders that reflect the full array of talent that America has to offer. That was one very important reason why we proudly worked to draft Rep. Donna Edwards for her U.S. Senate run this year and backed Nina Turner in 2014 for Ohio Secretary of State, but it’s also why we intend to work even harder to recruit and support progressive people of color to run for office and win in 2016 and beyond. 

At Netroots Nation, #BlackLivesMatter leaders called on all of us to use our power to respond to the current state of emergency, say the names of those who have died at the hands of a racist criminal justice system, and to build a more equitable society where our elected leaders reflect and honor the full breadth and depth of the lived experiences of their constituents. Democracy for America is ready to heed that call to action and make sure it has real electoral consequences in 2016 and beyond

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