MANASSAS, VIRGINIA — Mostly white faces made up the crowd of about 2,000 who attended a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Virginia on Tuesday night. One of them was Kai, a 21 year old who held up a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” for nearly the entire event, which lasted about an hour and a half.
“This is one of the most important causes of our generation,” he told ThinkProgress during the rally when asked about why he was holding the Black Lives Matter sign. “I want people to know that their lives matter to me.”
As Sanders surges in Democratic primary polls, he’s also been criticized for his handling of modern racial justice issues. At the beginning of his campaign, Vox pointed out that the U.S. senator from Vermont avoided talking about race directly, “answering questions about racial issues by pivoting back to economic ones.” Sanders was also obviously frustrated when he was interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists this summer, and many bristled when his campaign responded by chanting “We stand together” in response. “Think about it,” Darlena Cunha wrote following the event for Time. “It involves hundreds of mostly white people shouting what is essentially “All lives matter” at the black people who dare to attempt to be heard.”
Since then, Sanders has been upping his rhetoric on racial issues, seemingly attempting to show non-white progressives that he is their candidate, too. At his speech at Monday’s rally, he tried to bridge the gap between the need for police and the need for racial justice — which he called a “difficult issue, a sensitive issue, a painful issue.”
From his remarks:
Racism is alive and well in America. And I’m not just talking about that very, very sick person in Charleston, South Carolina a couple months ago who walked into a bible prayer session, prayed with people in the room, and — because they were black — he took out a gun and killed 9 of them.
I’m not just talking about the hundreds of groups in this country whose sole purpose for existence is to propagate hatred. […]
I am also talking about institutional racism. About people like Sandra Bland, and Michael Brown. I am talking about unarmed African Americans killed while in police custody.
His mentions of Bland, a black woman who died mysteriously while in police custody, and Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot by a white officer, drew emotional cries of praise from the crowd. However, Sanders was also quick to defend police, recounting his time as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, where he frequent dealt with the force.
“The vast majority of police officers in this country are honest,” he said.
“If anybody thinks that being a cop today is an easy job, you are sorely mistaken,” he continued, noting that many are underpaid and undertrained. “But let us also be clear, that like any other public official, that when a police officer breaks the law, he must be held accountable.”
His solutions, like many he touched on in his wide-ranging speech, were broad. He proposed ending “the heavily militarization” of local police forces, abolishing privately-owned prisons, and integrating police to become closer with the areas they serve — both personally and aesthetically. “We need to make our police officers look like the diversity of the community,” he said, touching on the number of heavily white police forces that serve in majority minority communities.
Still, the end of his message on racial justice was as Sanders-esque as it could be — economic to the core. Finally, he proposed an end to the war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted people of color.
“A young person can get a criminal record for smoking marijuana,” he said,” “but the CEOs on wall street have never been prosecuted!”