CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The newly formed Black Economic Alliance hosted a forum this weekend with candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to discuss the pressing economic issues facing black Americans. At the same time, close to 50 demonstrators led by the Fight for $15 movement rallied to protest unfair treatment at local South Carolina McDonald’s restaurants.
The group says it spent nearly $4 million in the last midterms and endorsed candidates whose policies fit demonstrators' aims. The fast-food workers have come together much more recently. But their common ground Saturday was a precursor for how black Democrats, a critical base of support for the party, are increasing their demand for a clear, dynamic economic vision for black Americans.
The Democratic Party potentially has a lot to gain, as was evident as party leaders spoke this weekend with confidence about flipping South Carolina blue. The growth of the labor movement in South Carolina — which includes workers at other major companies, like Boeing — could be an unlikely boon for those hopes, which include the election of Jaime Harrison, a state party leader who is now running against Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Inside the forum venue, four candidates held forth with the TV host Soledad O’Brien on policy positions they believe can knock down long-standing systemic problems to achieve progress and equality for black Americans. (The forum was taped live and broadcast on BET Sunday morning.) The demonstrators, who were mostly black, with some white people sprinkled in, could at points be heard from inside the theater protesting to demand a fair wage and accountability.
In real time, the protesters stood out as both a new twist and potential constituency as the state prepared to take center stage in national politics this week, ahead of Rep. Jim Clyburn’s huge fish fry and state Democratic convention.
The candidates — Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — addressed a VIP audience of prominent business and political leaders and activists. Broadly speaking, the candidates agreed that helping to close the racial wealth gap should be a major priority of the eventual nominee, with slight variations between them about which steps government can take to maximize impact. To try to stand out, they leaned into their personalities and gave the well-heeled audience, many of them still undecided, an up-close look at how their thoughtfulness on the topic meshed with charisma.
The collision with the demonstrators, however, was everything the theater audience wasn’t: emotional, loud, unpredictable, and musical. The candidates addressed them using phrases like “Showing solidarity” and “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” No one candidate stood out in demonstrators’ minds as particularly impressive, though, raising the question of how black communities in the state that become politicized over workplace mistreatment, but who also face everyday problems such as sick babies, meager wages, and poor housing, are served by a nominating contest to treat a problem — President Donald Trump — that exists to them only in the abstract.
The demonstrators’ chants were just faintly audible to the people who were ushered into the Charleston Music Hall for the forum, but clearly showed those inside how workers’ rights activists, many of them new to the tactics of organized labor, now had a national platform and could offer wealthy liberal donors and candidates an unvarnished picture of the economic realities of everyday black South Carolinians. As they marched, Clyburn, who, as majority whip, is the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives, said from inside, “While we have succeeded in eliminating discrimination in public accommodations and ending ‘separate but equal,’ there remain systemic efforts to block black progress.”
The cochairs of the Black Economic Alliance, Tony Coles and Charles Phillips, said they chose to hold the forum because black people make up about two-thirds of the state’s primary. Another organizer who spoke called the forum “a love letter to the black community.”
But much was learned about the candidates in the mildly raw, unscripted live political theater involving three of the candidates and the protesters. South Carolina has the lowest union-membership rate in the country. Organizers said the demonstrators were thankful to the candidates, and not only for the media attention they brought with them. Rather, organizers said, the new labor leaders interpreted candidates’ presence as something of a faith-building exercise toward full empowerment. The candidates’ energies, and their willingness to listen, gave demonstrators hope in the moment, and confidence that when they sat at the table with their employers, their efforts would have an impact on their communities. (An organizer told BuzzFeed News that one of the women had a close relative die that morning.)
“That’s where the magic is,” said one organizer, marveling at the courage of the protesters. In many cases, the fast-food workers being organized by the Fight for $15 movement had no clue about their rights as workers, organizers said. Organizers described the difficulty of building a sustainable labor movement amid the exploitation and consolidation of wealth in South Carolina as one of the vestiges of slavery, despite a proud history of resistance, including the Charleston hospital workers’ strike of 1969 and the Charleston Five in 2000.
Dockworker and longtime labor rights activist Leonard Riley Jr. described the history of protest and black labor in Charleston as complicated, but he was encouraged by what’s happening now, including how the Democratic presidential candidates are treating their movement. “I think everybody is trying to find that right balance,” he said in an interview. “But this is a good time. I appreciate the dialogue from each of them, but I know that some are going to resonate more based on their history, which indicates their sincerity.”
The protest gave a spotlight to two women, underscoring the work of the Black Women Lead movement to push national Democrats to invest in resources to cultivate black women leaders. Taiwanna Milligan and Latarsha Smith, who had met only the night before, both detailed their struggles at the demonstration. Milligan makes only $8.75 an hour despite being one of the most dependable employees at the Charleston McDonald’s location. “I ask for a raise, and every time they say, 'We'll talk about it' — but that conversation never happens,” Milligan said in a statement. Smith said she still hadn’t received an adequate response from McDonald’s after she reported being sexually harassed.
“Ever since we’ve hit these shores, we’ve resisted the exploitation,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Votes Matter, which is organizing in several states this election cycle. “I think part of what is happening now in this political season is that black folks are tired and we want to share in the wealth that we create in this country.”
National Democrats’ efforts in the past four years have included more targeted investments in finding ways to speak to and motivate irregular voters, after polling by groups like Priorities USA Action and Black Votes Matter found that many of the voters they need to target in 2020 felt Democrats weren’t speaking for them. The demonstrators Saturday gave Democrats their own messaging, passing out flyers that featured their spin on the Black Economic Alliance’s agenda that read, “McDonald’s Workers’ Real Talk About Work, Wages, Wealth,” and included a young man’s testimony regarding his worry about supporting a child while making $9 an hour. The flyer “explained why unions must be part of any real conversation about lifting up Black communities in the South,” the Fight for $15 said. Copies were passed out to VIPs, business executives, and the campaign staff.
Before the demonstrators marched to the venue of the presidential forum downtown, both O’Rourke and Booker visited with the group at the McDonald’s location where Milligan works. (A police officer stood nearby warning protesters not to step on the restaurant’s “private property.”) O’Rourke brought the coffee and donuts. Booker tried to bring the heat.
“Hello, family!” He said that twice, then delivered a stem-winder about workers’ wages being low because democracy was being “assaulted by oligarchs” and damaged by “concentrated corporate power” that is “undermining the principles of our democracy, that is undermining free markets and the ability of labor to organize." He also spoke of the need to stand up to "make sure that everyone in America can have their American dream.”
“And to that we say, no more!”
Some people yelled back, “No more!”
“To that we say, enough!”
To which demonstrators replied, “Enough!” It was the kind of grassroots "retail politics" setting in which Booker typically shines. But several onlookers told BuzzFeed News they only partially connected to what he had to say.
Later that afternoon, Buttigieg joined the march to the venue and stood silently in solidarity, holding up a banner behind the women as they told their stories. When he was at the end of his brief remarks, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters, including Will Cox, who had driven from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, started screaming and then started to chant loudly, “Medicare for all,” an apparent dig at Buttigieg’s position that a single-payer system wouldn’t mean the end of private insurance. (Cox said he didn’t want to admit in the moment that he was a Sanders fan.) Buttigieg glared over to see who they were, but they had already begun to scatter.
At one point after Milligan spoke, Buttigeig seemed unsure of whether to embrace her, but he had been moved by her testimony.
“When you heard that mother, what you saw was that it wasn’t about her,” said Buttigieg after his sit-down interview with O’Brien at the forum. “It was about her son, about the fact that she has a 12-year-old son with medical issues who she’s struggling to support with Medicaid, but also from what I could tell, just struggling to be there because she’s got to work so hard because $7.25 is as good as she can get. No one who works in this country ought to be poor. It’s that simple. So when you see this not in terms of statistics and data and numbers but in a relationship between a mother and her child, you realize what’s at stake.”
Booker sought to frame the demonstration as reflective of the kind of organizing it’s going to take to create change in the political environment. “I would not be standing here as a black guy running for president if it wasn’t for people who understood that change doesn’t come from Washington; it comes to Washington. We didn’t get civil rights legislation because people in the Democratic Party came together and said that it was time for us to do this. Those are the leaders that ultimately we need to effectuate change.
“Because right now politics isn’t getting it done,” he said.