When Bernie Sanders held a rally at the University of Houston on Sunday, he mentioned Sandra Bland by name — a victory for #BlackLivesMatter activists who've made a cause of Bland's mysterious death in a Texas jail cell.
From the perspective of the national political media, this was the resolution of a drama that had erupted over the weekend — when Sanders was challenged at the progressive conference Netroots Nation to integrate the deaths of young black men and women at the hands of police into his campaign.
But from another perspective, it was just another step in calling attention to Bland's case — and getting white Americans, progressive or not, to pay more attention to the value of black life. After all, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is putting more effort into Bland's case, and other individual cases of African Americans killed by police or who died in custody, than it is into targeting Sanders or other candidates.
To understand why #BlackLivesMatter activists challenged progressive presidential candidates over the weekend, you have to understand that they're working on both levels. They're using national political organizing to call attention to, and reinforce, the immediate work being done in individual cases.
In other words, they're not just challenging Bernie Sanders supporters over Sanders — they're challenging Sanders supporters on what they individually have done and can do to support the movement. And that's why it's so frustrating that Sanders's supporters appear less willing to listen to them than to his campaign.
#BlackLivesMatter is focused on individual cases and victims
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has its roots in campaigns in response to the deaths of particular young black men and women: Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Those responses have grown into a sustained call for change in police/community relations and use-of-force policies, and for the media to be more respectful of black victims. But the focus on individual cases has remained — both as a way to remind America of the actual victims of the status quo and to demand justice for individuals at the local level.
Tactically, this makes sense. It's easier to mobilize people in response to a particular injustice than to get them to help prevent injustices across the board. And even in the long term, a lot of the policies that activists want to change are state and local policies — how a police department uses force against residents, for example, or how a state prosecutes a police officer who's accused of a crime.
But it's also in harmony with one of the principles the movement has expressed: that black people who died because someone thought they posed a "threat" (whether that person is a police officer or a civilian) aren't getting the respect they deserve from society. At best, they're nothing but a statistic; at worst, they're portrayed as thugs.
The protesters who took the mic at the Martin O'Malley/Bernie Sanders town hall on Saturday focused on the #SayHerName hashtag. It's designed to call attention to young black women, in particular, who died at the hands of police — including, they believe, Sandra Bland. As the hashtag itself implies, organizers want people to pay attention and respect to these women as individuals, as a way of honoring their legacy.
Sanders has spoken about police violence and accountability in the past. But activists challenged him to show respect for the #BlackLivesMatter movement by showing respect for the individual victims they're defending. So when he named Sandra Bland on Sunday, a voice from the crowd shouted, "Thank you for saying her name!"
Why activists need help from Sanders's supporters as much as from Sanders himself
Many black progressives have watched Bernie Sanders rise to the level of progressive champion with a lot of frustration. They've been moderately frustrated with Sanders himself, who hasn't been terribly eager (to paraphrase Roderick Morrow, creator of the #BernieSoBlack hashtag) to talk about race issues as race issues. But they've been more frustrated with Sanders's supporters, especially on social media, who've responded to anyone challenging Sanders to be more outspoken about race by essentially telling the critic to shut up.
To Sanders's critics, that's an all too familiar dynamic: white progressives setting the "progressive agenda" and telling black progressives it's not their place to criticize. But it's also frustrating because #BlackLivesMatter needs all the support it can get on the local level. It needs white progressives to pay attention not just to what's going on in the 2016 presidential race, but also to what's going on in their communities. And frankly, it appears that much of the #BlackLivesMatter distrust of white progressives is that white progressives aren't always attuned to what's going on in their own backyards.
It appears that Sanders's campaign (as well as O'Malley's and Clinton's) are more responsive to black activists and their demands after this weekend's events. But those activists aren't confident that the white progressives who spend their time defending Sanders are listening to them as well as the candidate himself is. And that means that their pressure on the candidates can only do so much. It's a victory for activists that Sanders mentioned Sandra Bland's name — but if the attendees at his rally rolled their eyes at the "pandering" to protesters, rather than checking out the case and the investigation, that victory doesn't mean as much for activists as it could have.