18 July 2015
How do Black Lives Matter?
As if to prove a point made by supporters of Hillary Clinton, two of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, were shouted off a stage at a "Netroots Nation" town meeting today in Phoenix by black protesters who were dissatisfied by the two politicians' apparent lack of specific proposals to address the threat to blacks from police brutality and other injustices. O'Malley committed the apparent cardinal sin of responding to the "Black Lives Matter" chant by saying "All lives matter." This was a clarifying moment in some ways. To some it may show how narrow minded and disrespectful some black activists are, and on one level such observers wouldn't be wrong. "Black Lives Matter" can not be the defining issue of the 2016 campaign, if only because there's so much going on, or going wrong, that there rightfully can't be one defining issue. To judge a candidate for President only on their position or perceived lack of position on that one issue is parochial to a fault. And yet after reading the reports of the Phoenix incident I feel I have a better understanding of what "Black Lives Matter" means and why "all lives matter" is not the correct answer. Protesters like the hecklers in Phoenix point to what they perceive as threats to black lives in particular, or to black lives disproportionately. They perceive a "state of emergency," as one protester said, so plain and painful that "you are not human" if you don't recognize it. The hecklers shouted down O'Malley and Sanders, fairly or not, because they believed that neither man had proposals ready to protect black people, those most endangered by the emergency. They believe that anyone planning to be President ought to have such a proposal in mind already. Any serious candidate needs to have a lot in mind, of course, but if black hecklers shouldn't try to advance their issues to the exclusion of others, neither should any candidate try to advance his or hers to the exclusion of theirs. For what it was worth, Clinton did not attend the Phoenix event. It would have been interesting had she done so, if only to test whether blacks' loyalty to her (or her family) is as assured as so many assume. It will be interesting now to see if anyone asks her about what happened in Phoenix and what she thinks of it. Then we might get a hint of what matters to her.