ATLANTA — Elizabeth Warren gave what her campaign billed as a major address on the leadership of black women on Thursday — a direct appeal for black women to support her presidential campaign, which came after a shaky start when a group of pro-charter school protesters drowned out the beginning of the speech.
“The fighters I want to talk about tonight are black women,” Warren began, speaking at Atlanta Clark University, an HBCU, before a group of mostly black women began chanting “our kids, our choice” and “we want to be heard.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress and a key supporter of Warren’s campaign, had to step in and ask the group to let Warren finish her speech. Pressley took the mic after the group had chanted over Warren for several minutes, as she tried to carry on.
“I am going to appeal to you to not dishonor that history,” Pressley said. “We would love to convene afterward about the issue that you are here to stoke our conscience about.”
Warren’s speech, when she was able to deliver it after the interruption, was focused on the black washerwomen’s strike of 1881 in Atlanta. Much like her speech at Washington Square Park in September, the speech was promoted and organized with historical references, full of symbolism geared to cast Warren in a presidential light.
In a video preceding the speech, which was released in the days leading up to it, author Roxane Gay narrates Warren’s feminist credentials. In one clip, Warren chants, “Si se puede,” the slogan made famous by Chicana labor rights activist Dolores Huerta.
“I’ve been called persistent in my time — and I love it. But understand this: The persistence of generations of black women, and black people in America, up to and including many people in this crowd tonight, is the true story of American persistence,” Warren told the audience while standing next to a black and mint green “value the work of black women” sign.
A Warren campaign official told BuzzFeed News that a representative of the pro-charter protesters met with Warren following the speech before she began her traditional post-event selfie line.
The group, Powerful Parents Network, told reporters outside the speech that they were protesting Warren’s proposal to freeze funding for new charter schools, saying that they perceive the plan as taking away the “choice” of where they send their children to school. When Warren released her K–12 education plan, she called for freezing federal funding for expanding charters, subjecting charter schools to the same levels of transparency as public schools, and banning for-profit charter schools to the anger of charter school activists.
“To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools,” Warren said in a Medium post about the announcement in October. “Efforts to expand the footprint of charter schools, often without even ensuring that charters are subject to the same transparency requirements and safeguards as traditional public schools, strain the resources of school districts and leave students behind, primarily students of color.”
Members of the protest group, largely composed of black women, said that charter schools have helped their children, who they say live in poor and failing school districts and receive a better education. They said Warren was silencing the voices of poor black women.
“She’s talking about valuing black women, what about these black women who are living every day with their kids not getting a decent education, and charter schools give them an option,” said one protester, who didn’t give his name.
Black voters, and black women in particular, are a crucial voting block for Democratic candidates looking to win the party’s presidential nomination. Only one candidate, former vice president Joe Biden, has been able to coalesce substantial support from older black voters in the crowded primary.
Despite his stronghold on older black voters, a generational split shows younger black voters leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Warren has since early summer gained some ground with black voters, and black women in particular. When Warren appeared at the She the People forum in Houston in April, she received praise from women of color in the audience and from Aimee Allison, the group’s founder, for the language she used to discuss issues about women of color and black women in particular.
“The reason I think she did so well is that she started talking about the twin evils of economic injustice and racial injustice as a distinct, understandable problem that faces society, reasons that affect Americans and each need a set of specific policies and practices to interrupt and change,” Allison told BuzzFeed News at the time.
In early November, Warren received an endorsement from Black Womxn For, a group of over 100 black women and gender nonconforming activists just a day after receiving an endorsement from Pressley.
“I think it only makes sense that we are front and center, that we have a say in who leads the coalition to defeat Donald Trump,” Angela Peoples, director of Black Womxn For, said at the Thursday night event.
BuzzFeed News spoke with about a dozen young black women after the event. Most said they were impressed with Warren and found it refreshing to see a presidential candidate talk about them specifically.
“I think that was important for this audience and particularly for me as a black woman in Atlanta,” said Sarah Lewis, 34. “I was very impressed with Elizabeth Warren.”
Lewis added, though, that she would like Warren to have a more comprehensive reparations plan, like Marianne Williamson’s.
Baisha Smith, 18, a student at South Carolina State, traveled to Atlanta for the Warren rally. She said Warren was convincing and seemed like she “knew what she was saying” when she was talking about the washerwomen’s strike, not just using it for political points.
“I think it’s really frustrating being a black voter, because they pick the time closest to the election to decide that they’re going to focus on black issues, and time and time again you hear politicians say they’re going to do something for the black community, and it’s constantly being let down,” said Ayanna Akobundu, 21, who recently graduated as a history major from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She added that she is hopeful that Warren won’t let her down.
“Elizabeth Warren has been hitting on all of the points that really matter to me. Particularly prioritizing black women, prioritizing the LGBTQI community, and recognizing the intersectionality between our two communities,” Akobundu said.
LGBTQ issues have been conspicuously absent from all of the Democratic primary debates so far, and violence against black trans women has been largely overlooked by candidates on the campaign trail. Warren on Thursday night spoke specifically about violence against cis-gender and trans black women.
“When it comes to protecting black women, we need to face the hard truth that black women and girls are being brutalized at alarming rates by people they know and trust,” Warren said, recalling the recent murder of Alexis Crawford, a black student who attended Clark Atlanta University. “Black trans women are especially vulnerable to violence and hate crimes. At least 21 black trans women have been killed this year alone — that is an epidemic and we need to call it out.”
Amanda Palmore, 20, a student at Spelman College, said she appreciated Warren acknowledging black history but would have liked her to spend more time actually detailing her plans and how she would carry them out than reciting the history of black activism in the Atlanta area (a critique that’s also been given to Sanders) — a different kind of criticism for a candidate who has made just the concept of having plans central to her campaign.
“I’m not too impressed. I feel like she is just a politician, but I didn’t really get any plan of action. She said she had a plan, I would have rather she said how she was going to do it.”