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#BlackLivesMatter Is Winning the 2016 Democratic Primary

7 minute read

When Black Lives Matter protestors stormed a room at a meeting in Phoenix and demanded that the 2016 presidential candidates say the names of black people killed by the police, the response was swift: Bernie Sanders did it the next day.

“I wish that in the year 2015, I could tell you we have eliminated racism in this country, but you all know that is not true,” said Sanders, to a crowd of more than 11,000 in Houston on Sunday, and then listed the names: “Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and many, many others.”

It’s a testament to the influence Black Lives Matter activists are already having on the 2016 presidential race. Since the raucous protest of a few dozen mostly African-American activists brought the biggest meeting of progressives in the country to a screeching halt, Hillary Clinton repeated her calls for body cameras and improved early childhood education, and wrote “Black lives matter” in a Facebook post. Martin O’Malley promised to roll out a comprehensive plan to reform the criminal justice system, and Sanders has repeatedly brought up race on the campaign trail.

Now, Black Lives Matter leaders are preparing an agenda of policy demands and requirements designed to push Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley to embrace broad reforms to address systemic racism head-on. Activists foresee a series of demonstrations to call attention to racial injustice in the United States.

“What does the Democratic camp have to say about our society? We are in a crisis,” said Opal Tometi, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement. “If they want our vote, they’re going to have to speak to the death of black people at the hands of law enforcement, and create a racial justice agenda that cuts across all major issues.”

Black Lives Matter activists meeting in Cleveland this weekend will formulate a long list of policy demands for candidates, Tometi said, intended to shape the 2016 presidential race and help form the basis for candidates’ talking points.

Some of the agenda will likely include anti-bias police hiring, the demilitarization of police forces and external reviews of police practices, activists told TIME. But leaders are also calling for more sweeping reforms that include a package of progressive packages intended to help poor blacks, including lifting the minimum wage, aggressive education reform, housing protections, protecting access to the ballot box and ending mass incarceration.

A number of racial justice groups including the Black Youth Project, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, the Dream Defenders and others are expected to be in Cleveland.

“Body cameras and dash cameras are clearly not enough, because Sandra Bland still ended up dead,” said Alicia Garza, a second cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, referring to a civil rights activist who was found dead in a jail cell in Texas, in what authorities have called a suicide. Many observers have called her arrest violent and excessive.

“I want to see from all these candidates is program for how they’re going to aggressively work to ensure that black lives matter,” Garza continued. “Not just in relation to policing: we have to dive into questions of economics and democracy.”

Black Lives Matter grew out of the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the violence last year in Ferguson, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black man was killed by the police. Over the past year, the organizationally diffuse movement has mounted large protests against police violence and incarceration policies. The movement is fueled by a widespread anger over police violence against black citizens.

Of the Democratic candidates, Clinton has perhaps addressed race in the most detail since launching her campaign. She has called for automatic voter registration and protecting the rights of black Americans at the ballot box, body cameras on police officers, early childhood education directed at low-income families and overhauling the criminal justice system. She has called for greater gun control and raising the minimum wage, and spoken specifically to the persistence of racism.

“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansman,” Clinton said in a speech in June. “It’s also in the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s in the off-hand comments about not wanting ‘those people’ in the neighborhood.”

Sanders led anti-segregation efforts in Chicago in the 1960s and participated in the Million Man March, but does not frequently talk about racism on the campaign trail. He has become increasingly vocal about racism, particularly since Saturday, calling for more accountability among police and larger steps to address prison reform. O’Malley has called for better funding of independent external review boards and reducing penalties for nonviolent criminals.

The spectacle on Saturday at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona began during former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s presidential town hall question-and-answer session, when several dozen Black Lives Matter protestors marched into the conference room, chanting, “What side are you on black people, what side are you on!” and chanted “Say her name! O’Malley was silenced for some ten minutes before finally addressing the protestors and calling for broader criminal justice reforms. Sanders nearly left the stage in frustration as the chanting continued.

Read more: Sanders and O’Malley Stumble During Black Lives Matter Protest

“Folks who are tired of what’s happening in communities of color are ready to see real change,” said Tia Oso, a Black Lives Matter activist who mounted the stage at Netroots and took a microphone to directly address the audience in the middle of O’Malley’s session. “This type of direct confrontation is a strategy that we must employ.”

Immediately following the protest on Saturday, O’Malley tweeted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and Sanders tweeted the names of black people killed by the police.

Clinton, too named Sandra Bland in the days after the protest, saying in a statement, “My heart breaks at seeing another young African American life lost too soon. Sandra Bland had a bright future ahead of her and it is particularly tragic that she lost her life just as she was to start her new career.”

There’s an electoral realism that all the candidates will have to grapple with, too: Black voters are a crucial voting bloc, particularly black women. They have turned out in higher numbers than any other demographic in the past two presidential elections, and galvanizing them will be key for the Democratic nominee. They are among the most prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Activists say they’ll be listening closely to what the candidates say in the coming months.

“They’re the community Democrats need to win the election, black women in particular,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “And that’s who was taking over the stage.”

Clinton was not at the convention in Phoenix, but she was quickly drawn in to addressing the protestors. In a Facebook question and answer session on Monday, a journalist asked Clinton how she would have responded to the protestors at Netroots Nation. “Black lives matter,” Clinton wrote back. “Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that…. Black people across America still experience racism every day.” The campaign posted her response on Twitter on Wednesday.

During a stop in Detroit on Tuesday, Clinton again told a local activist that “black lives matter” and repeated her call for overhauling the criminal justice system.

None of the Democrats, however, have so far satisfied the activists, who say the protests will continue.

“They should be ready for anything,” said Oso.

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