HOOKSETT, N.H. — This time, when Bernie Sanders got a direct question about what he can do to assist the growing Black Lives Matter movement, the Vermont senator was ready.
“As a white ally, what should we start doing tomorrow?” asked a young woman in the large and overwhelmingly white crowd at a town hall, held at Southern New Hampshire University. “In terms of political revolution?” she added.
Without a beat, Sanders ticked off the kind of focused answer that eluded him at Netroots in June. He spoke of fighting against the “absurdity” of the number of minorities in prison.
He took direct aim at police.
“Support a number of police reforms,” Sanders said to the young woman. “And it’s not just body cameras and so forth. It’s also issues of use of force. Being a cop is not an easy job, but force should be a last resort. Too often, it is almost the first resort.”
There’s nothing especially new about Sanders publicly questioning police tactics or railing against the American prison infrastructure and its outsize impact on young men of color. But after a careful listening tour with activists after the brouhaha at Netroots, a person familiar with Sanders’ thinking said the self-described Democratic Socialist learned he had to do more to tell his story to a movement uninterested in Civil Rights Movement nostalgia or being lectured to about the enduring economic divides that are the heart of Sanders’ campaign message.
So now, Sanders is trying to retell his story for a new audience.
On the campaign trail across six stops in New Hampshire this weekend, that meant a careful reading out of the names of black Americans who have died either at the hands of police or in police custody and are mentioned often by #BlackLivesMatter activists. The Sanders source said the candidate is as moved by these stories as anyone — when he was told a speech he had already scheduled in Texas was situated just 60 miles from the county jail where Sandra Bland died, he mentioned her death in his speech. A few days later, he told a crowd in Washington that Bland would not have died if she were white.
That kind of rhetoric has continued on the trail, and ramped up before the mostly white crowds in New Hampshire. At a stop in Exeter, Sanders said the police “were responsible” for Bland’s death. Throughout the weekend, he added mentions of Samuel Dubose to his stump, speaking repeatedly of his death as well as that of the half-dozen or so others.
“The police must be held accountable,” Sanders said at the SNHU stop.
Sanders supporters argue this is no pander. It’s Sanders being Sanders now that he understands the contours of a protest movement that clearly caught him off-guard at Netroots, they say. There, he responded to a #BlackLivesMatter disruption of a town hall event by chastising protesters that he had “spent 50 years fighting for civil rights and dignity.” That did not go over well among activists looking for specific, actionable solutions for ending the phyisical risk for black Americans that the activists say is caused by white supremacy.
Sanders is now trying very hard to project that he gets it. And that he always has gotten it.
A key part of Sanders’ brand is consistency — at a stop in Franklin, Ben Cohen (the Ben of Ben & Jerry’s and a frequent Sanders surrogate) told the crowd that he’s heard Sanders say the same things for so long “that if it wasn’t so inspiring, it would be boring.” The #BlackLivesMatter moment at Netroots and the ensuing backlash against Sanders from young black activists was jarring for Sanders supporters who generally view him as the lodestar for progressive values and are not used to leftists calling him anything less.
So Sanders has tweaked his stump speech by digging around into his record.
While mayor of Burlington, he said at one stop, he helped to create a community policing program like the ones now popular nationally among political leaders hoping to foster a better relationship between police and the people they serve. When executed properly, Sanders said in his last stop of the tour, police “are not seen as oppressors.”
Militarized police, “like the ones we saw in Ferguson,” Sanders said in a repeated line, are a danger to black lives and must be curtailed. Sanders has been talking about that since the fires in the Missouri town raged on TV in August 2014.
The private prison industry, long a Sanders target, gets a prominent mention in all of his stump speeches now, and is tied directly to a criminal justice structure that he says unfairly targets blacks.
But everything still comes back to the economic message. More than one month before Netroots, Sanders gave a speech about unemployment called “Youth Unemployment and Dr. King’s Dream,” which centered around a 51% black youth unemployment rate he found in a study he commissioned from the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute. (The figure has come under some scrutiny from fact-checkers.) The figure is now a central part of Sanders’ economic messaging as he talks about better jobs and better wages.
The billionaire class, which Sanders has forever said is stealing the country from the working Americans, is also one of the forces continuing to create a racial divide in the country, Sanders often argues.
“These guys are so powerful today. I know them. I know what Wall Street is about. I know what the Koch Brothers are about and the influence that they have,” he said at one stop in a version of a line he delivers at every stop. “But we have something they don’t. We have the people. And when the people stand together, when we do not allow them to divide us up on race, when we do not allow them to divide us up on gender, when we do not allow them to divide us up on sexual orientation, when we do not allow them to divide us up on whether we were born in America or born in Mexico. When we stand together, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”
Sanders is very careful to reach out to #BlackLivesMatter in every speech. He stops, reads the names off his printed notes, and says “Black lives matter” aloud often. He speaks of racism, he speaks of police. The Netroots protesters were heard, his team insists. Their cry is his cry.
“We have made progress,” Sanders said at the Exeter stop, “but we should all be aware that in terms of racism in terms of sexism, in terms of homophobia, we still have a long way to go.”
Sanders said that #BlackLivesMatter was a movement for all races to embrace.
“I don’t have to tell anybody in this room because I know that you feel the same as I do,” he said to the white audience in Exeter's Old Town Hall before listing the names of the dead like Bland and Dubose. “All of you know that racism exists today in America. We’ve got a long way to overcome it, and we need to play an active role in reforming our criminal justice system.”
Standing near the entrance at the Sanders town hall in Rollinsford Sunday morning was at least some evidence the new approach is working. Virginia Towler, a former attorney in Janet Reno’s Justice Department and aspiring novelist, moved to New Hampshire several years ago from Washington, D.C/, to care for her mother, a former associate dean at the University of New Hampshire. A middle-aged black woman in a Black Lives Matter longsleeve t-shirt and one of those nylon floppy-brimmed hats common to outdoorsy New Englanders, she stood out from much of the crowd.
Both the hat and the shirt had Bernie Sanders stickers on them. Towler is full-square behind Sanders and can quickly tick off the reasons he’s the best candidate in the race for the current black activist movement.
“He understands the economics of this country,” she said. “He mentions the statistics, he sees that 50% of black youth are unemployed. They’re the ones so-called loitering. They’ve got no place to go. They’re probably from homes without air conditioning. So they’re going to be outdoors. Kids go outdoors.”
“Black youth being outdoors, being young and outdoors is a threat to the police, and that is frightening,” she said. “Those kids want work. They can’t get jobs.”
She praised Sanders for being quick to reorient his message to the new civil rights movement reality, as well as for having a history she said made that reorientation possible. In an interview after the event, she said her experience as a black American in the Granite State made her understand of how Sanders could be slow to catch on to #BlackLivesMatter.
“Remember, he’s from Vermont. He’s from Vermont!” she said with a laugh. “I don’t fault him for being from Vermont any more than I necessarily fault New Hampshire people for not understanding black people and Black Lives Matter, etc., etc.”
“But I don’t think white people are stupid,” she went on. “I think they’re complacent. And as long as they’re complacent we’ll have these problems. As long as they don’t take responsibility for speaking up and shaming each other.”
So maybe Sanders was a little complacent?
“I think, yeah. Because he’s in a bubble,” Towler said. “He’s in a New England bubble.”