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How Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley want to address racial injustice

Members of the Black Lives Matter movement have told Democratic presidential candidates exactly what they want.

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, activists took the stage at a town hall with Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. The activists challenged both candidates to make racial and criminal justice a bigger part of their campaigns.

"I want to hear concrete actions. I want to hear an action plan," activist Patrisse Cullors told O'Malley. "And we want to hear it from Bernie Sanders too."

Only a few weeks later, the activists have what they asked for. O'Malley's campaign put out a criminal justice platform on July 31. On Saturday, activists again interrupted Sanders at a rally in Seattle: "You have yet to put out a criminal justice package like O'Malley did," said Marissa Johnson. By Sunday night, the Sanders campaign had released an agenda for "Racial Justice."

The proposals aren't identical — for one thing, Sanders's is much vaguer — but they're strikingly similar. Some of the candidates' proposals, like an end to many or all mandatory minimum prison sentences, enjoy support in both parties. Others, like preserving and expanding voting rights, are longstanding beliefs within the Democratic Party. But several of the themes and proposals in O'Malley and Sanders's platforms trace what could be an emerging, specifically Democratic view of racial and criminal justice — one that combines "smart on crime" ideas pioneered by the Obama administration with critiques of race relations in 2015 from black America.

Black Lives Matter activists are treating this as a prerequisite: Anyone running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 should have put a lot of thought into racial justice and have concrete ideas for how to fix it. So far, it looks like they're achieving that goal (although Hillary Clinton has yet to put out a platform). But with a long way between now and the end of the Democratic primary — since the Black Lives Matter movement isn't endorsing a candidate — activists' relationship with Sanders, O'Malley, and (eventually) Clinton is going to be determined not just by the content of the candidates' platforms but by the content of their records. It's up to activists to decide how much candidates who helped create the problem of mass incarceration (which certainly includes Clinton and O'Malley) have to do to prove they're committed to ending it.

Sanders lists things that should happen; O'Malley explains how he'd make them happen

O'Malley's platform, which was released July 31, is much more specific than Sanders's. When the latter's platform first came out on August 9, the day after he was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle, it was described as a "draft," so his campaign might have more details forthcoming. Right now, it's a collection of statements about things "we" (society and/or the government) need to do; how the Bernie Sanders administration would make these things happen isn't always clear. (The Sanders campaign did not respond to inquiries about the platform.)

Sanders accepts that racial inequality is a problem that can't simply be solved through addressing economic inequality, but the platform reflects the fact that "economic violence" is one big way he comes at the issue of racial injustice. The only proposal in Sanders's platform specific enough to get a price tag, for example, is a $5.5 billion federal jobs program for young people of color in cities.

(Win McNamee / Getty News Images)

(Win McNamee / Getty News Images)

O'Malley's platform, meanwhile, shows that he approaches the issue in part through immigration — an issue on which, unlike criminal justice, O'Malley's progressive cred is solid. His platform addresses immigration detention and prosecution alongside the main federal criminal system. O'Malley's platform also shows why the details matter: It makes clear which proposals would be achieved through executive action (by, say, directing the Department of Justice to prioritize certain types of cases) and which would be up to Congress and simply "encouraged" by President O'Malley.

The details don't just make it clear that someone on O'Malley's campaign understands what a president can and can't change about the criminal justice system; they also show some proposals are higher priorities than others. O'Malley wants to end the death penalty, for example, but he's not proposing to pressure the FDA to get involved with lethal injection protocols; instead, he just wants to "build a consensus" among states.

O'Malley and Sanders want the feds to help stop police from killing civilians

Even if Black Lives Matter activists hadn't been explicitly calling for O'Malley and Sanders (as well as Hillary Clinton) to release criminal justice platforms, you'd still be able to see the movement's influence. Both platforms take it as a given that police use of deadly force is out of control, and that the federal government needs to step in.

Both Sanders and O'Malley call for better data on police use of force (which currently is incomplete at best and useless at worst). They both want clear rules on when it's appropriate for police to use force: Sanders wants to use federal grants to encourage states and localities to adopt better policies, while O'Malley wants to release clear national standards and propose legislation requiring states to live up to them. And they both want the Department of Justice to be more active in prosecuting police misconduct. O'Malley, in fact, calls for a lower standard in federal civil rights law, to make it easier for the government to prosecute individual police officers like Darren Wilson. (I asked the O'Malley campaign what they thought the standard should be, and they didn't have an answer.)

Ferguson protesters

Some of these proposals are more realistic than others. The biggest problem with police lethal force policies, for example, is Supreme Court precedent, which isn't easy for a president to fix. But it's important that both candidates are embracing this as a federal issue. (It's a shift for Sanders, in fact; after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, he said it was "primarily a local and state issue.") Democrats have accepted for half a century that the federal government sometimes needs to protect people of color from their state or local governments; now they're accepting that the federal government has a role in protecting them from the police, as well.

O'Malley and Sanders want to tie federal funds to good policing

Both Sanders and O'Malley talk up "community policing," which has been standard for Democrats since the 1990s. But the phrase "community policing" doesn't mean a lot on its own, and the biggest federal policy that encourages it — the COPS grant program, championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden — is more often used for departments to keep doing what they're already doing than to help improve their strategies.

Both candidates' platforms endorse the same solution: Stop giving police departments money to get them to do the right things, and start giving them money only if they're already doing the right things. O'Malley would change the eligibility criteria for federal grant programs as a way to encourage police to implement things like racial bias training and citizen oversight; Sanders would give more grant money to departments that make progress on demilitarization and officer diversity (among other things), while slashing the funding of those who don't.

This would be a tremendous shift. The Obama administration has recently reformed federal policing grants to make sure that police departments who get federal money and equipment aren't violating the Constitution. But that's obviously a low bar. In general, federal money isn't seen as a reward for departments that are already doing the right thing; it's seen as assistance for departments that need the most help. (When departments report their local crime rates in grant requests, for example, it's not to show improvement; it's to show that crime is high enough that they need help fighting it.)

It's hardly unusual for the federal government to use federal money to get states and localities to adopt policies the government likes. That's why no state lets 18-year-olds drink legally. But if Sanders and O'Malley's platforms are any indication, Democrats are beginning to extend that principle to policing.

O'Malley and Sanders want to treat drugs and mental health as health-care issues

The Obama administration often talks about the war on drugs as a public health issue first and a law enforcement issue second. Both Sanders and O'Malley apply that strategy, which O'Malley calls "medicalization," more broadly: not just to drug addiction, but to mental illness, which is a major driver of local jail populations.

O'Malley wants to use federal grants to help states put "comprehensive drug treatment" programs into place; Sanders wants to expand the use of drug courts, which can help some drug-addicted offenders get treatment without prison. Sanders refers to both "medical and mental health interventions" for drug addicts, but O'Malley addresses mental illness outside of the context of drugs: calling for communities to build infrastructure to handle people who are mentally ill so that they don't have to be sent in and out of jail.

methadone treatment

Clinton's team have signaled that they also want to make medicalization of addiction and mental health issues a theme of her campaign, although they haven't put out a platform to show what they mean yet. In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, which treated health care as part of the social safety net, it's not surprising Democrats are increasingly aware of the ways the criminal justice system is taking over roles that could be fulfilled by a more robust health-care system.

O'Malley and Sanders argue America has a long tradition of economic racism

Sanders and, to a lesser extent, O'Malley present what Sanders calls "economic violence" as part and parcel of the threats people of color face. And both of them fault the recession for hitting blacks and Latinos the hardest. But both also go beyond this point, arguing that what's hurting blacks and Latinos today are intergenerational problems of structural racism.

Sanders's platform quotes at length from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 speech about "the other America": "This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor." O'Malley's dwells less on economic inequality, but specifically points out "the legacy of institutionalized discrimination — such as redlining."

The mention of redlining in particular is interesting because many white liberals only learned the full story about redlining recently — via Ta-Nehisi Coates's enormously popular 2014 article "The Case for Reparations." Neither Sanders nor O'Malley is willing to come out in favor of economic reparations for people of color to make up for past wealth destruction, of course. It's not something the Democratic Party is likely to take up anytime soon. But it's a more active acknowledgment of the role historical racism has played in generating current wealth inequality than has typically been common among mainstream Democrats.

Is a good message enough to redeem a bad messenger?

Activist Tia Oso takes the stage during a town hall with Martin O'Malley and moderator Jose Antonio Vargas at Netroots Nation 2015.

(Charlie Leight/Getty)

Black Lives Matter activists embraced Sanders's platform, especially because he released it at the same time that he hired a criminal justice activist for his campaign. The warm response from the movement made it clear that activists' problem was (and still is) more about Sanders's fans than Sanders himself anyway. For Martin O'Malley — and, probably, for Hillary Clinton — it's a different story.

O'Malley's platform might be more fully developed than Sanders's, but he started at such a deficit with black activists that he hasn't earned a ton of goodwill for it. Many of the problems with Baltimore policing that culminated in the protests over Freddie Gray's death get traced back to O'Malley's term as mayor of Baltimore, and even to O'Malley himself. That makes O'Malley a terrible messenger for racial justice in 2015 (and his use of "all lives matter," months after it had become a popular slogan among BLM movement critics, didn't help). It's now up to activists to determine how much they're willing to set aside O'Malley's record to trust his proposals.

The same is true of Hillary Clinton. Clinton encouraged the 1994 crime bill, which increased prison sentences federally and (indirectly) in the states. She attacked Barack Obama for being soft on crime in 2008 when Obama proposed ending some mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. (Both Sanders and O'Malley want to end mandatory minimums; the Clinton campaign doesn't appear eager to repeat the argument.) She has, in short, shown very little reason for activists to trust that she'll be a champion of criminal justice reform.

Clinton hasn't even put out her proposal yet, though Black Lives Matter leaders have said they expect she'll do so soon. But even if it's better, and more detailed, than either Sanders or O'Malley's, activists will have a choice to make. They've asked for politicians to talk about their plans for the future; how heavily will they weight those against candidates' pasts?

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