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How 'Black Lives Matter' Activists Are Shaping the 2016 Campaign

The broader goal of the activists is for a deeper understanding of how discrimination and racism remain powerful forces in America.
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The activists who have protested police killings of African-Americans around the country and organized around the phrase “black lives matter” are pushing for a broad rethinking of how racism affects black Americans.

In their individual communities, these activists are pushing to see police officers punished for improper conduct, like the University of Cincinnati police officer who was indicted Wednesday on murder charges in the killing of a black man during a traffic stop. But the broader goal of the activists, many of whom are under 30, is for a deeper understanding of how discrimination and racism remain powerful forces that they say devalue African-Americans. Such a shift in thinking, these activists argue, would force changes in local, state and federal policies on a number of issues, including policing.

“A part of this movement is forcing the country to deal with the mythology of racism -- that black people are not fully human in the first place,” said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a Philadelphia pastor who has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement. “When black life matters, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a minor traffic violation is going to escalate like it did with Sandra Bland,” the 28 year-old woman who died earlier this month in police custody after a traffic stop.

Elle Hearns, who helped organize a conference in Cleveland last week called “The Movement for Black Lives Convening,” said that changing the way in which people of color are viewed and treated has to be a priority.

“Policy is a beautiful thing, but the reality is that policy isn’t going to save anyone’s life.” said Hearns.

Five presidential candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, will address the National Urban League’s annual conference in Fort Lauderdale on Friday. But while the Urban League is an older, more established civil rights organization, Clinton and the other candidates will also be tailoring their comments to the new, younger generation of activists who have emerged since the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last August.

In recent weeks, Clinton has emphatically invoked their rallying cry, “black lives matter.”

While hundreds of these activists gathered for the “Movement for Black Lives Convening” conference in Cleveland last week, none of the 2016 presidential candidates were in attendance, although BuzzFeed reported a Clinton aide was there.

In interviews with some of those who attended the Cleveland conference, organizers said that they discussed policy proposals but that their main focus was connecting with others within the movement.

“I didn’t really get in contact with any specific policy demands,” said Alwiyah Shariff, who attended the event and is a member of the Ohio Student Association, one of the organizations that put on the event. “For us, it was more about tackling the underlying issues in culture and society.”

But despite their insistence that their movement is about more than just policy, many activists still view politics as a necessary part of accomplishing their goals.

“Politics are important,” said Cedric Lawson, who attended the conference as a member of Black Youth Project, an organization aimed at mobilizing youth on issues of racial justice. “It is extremely important that activists are able to hold someone accountable.”

In fact, many of the activists are unified on policies they view as vital to improving the lives of black people, such as raising the federal minimum wage, increasing federal oversight of police and of police funding and putting more money into public schools, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.

Fight for 15, a national campaign which seeks to increase the national minimum wage to $15, is popular among activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

"This movement cannot be divorced from economic opportunity. A $15 minimum wage is certainly a game changer,” said Tyler.

Some activists have even suggested that public school systems be funded by the federal government, not through state and local taxes as they currently are.

“Funding for public schools should come at the federal level,” said Tyler. “If we go off of local property taxes, then we are always going to have a disparity. The way you don’t leave children behind is that you don’t have any schools that aren’t properly funded.”

While many cities are now requiring officers to wear body cameras, these activists say there is a need for more comprehensive reforms of policing.

“Body cameras clearly aren’t enough,” Shariff said. “People are dying every day, and we need to be giving less money to police and more training.”

Charlene Carruthers, the national director for the Black Youth Project, agreed, stating, “We need an immediate reallocation of how we fund policing in this country.”

“I believe that demilitarizing the police is a conversation that should be had,” said Herns. “If we invested money into our communities instead, then the need to have more police and military weapons wouldn’t be there.”

How They Differ From the Traditional Civil Rights Groups

Many of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement mirror those of traditional civil rights groups like the NAACP, the National Action Network (the Rev. Al Sharpton’s organization) and the National Urban League: changing police practices that often result in a disproportionate number of blacks being pulled over, stopped or arrested; fighting racism in government policy but also in American culture; and seeking to reduce inequality between blacks and whites.

What has emerged over the last year as a key difference is in rhetoric and how they define America’s racial problems. The younger activists often use phrases like “white supremacy” and “black lives matter,” and they emphatically reject others, like “black-on-black crime” and “white lives matter.” (In part because of how America is segregated, the victims of most crimes are the same race as the perpetrators, so these activists argue that isolating black victims of crimes by fellow blacks is misleading.)

Their view of race in America often mirrors that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the influential writer for The Atlantic and the author of “Between the World and Me.” Coates wrote a widely-read essay last year calling for reparations to Africans-Americans because of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws that emerged after the Civil War, and racially-biased housing policies. He has criticized President Barack Obama for too often focusing on the behavior of African-Americans rather than systemic racism that they face.

But more traditional civil rights groups take an approach more like Obama’s. They seek policy changes, such as getting schools to reduce the number of suspensions handed out black and Hispanic students, without necessarily convincing whites in today’s America they are part of a group that has long had privilege and supremacy.

“We are much sharper and focused on public policy,” Marc Morial, the Urban League’s president, said in an interview, comparing his institution to the younger activists. But he added, “they are adding support and momentum.”

“I don’t’ think there’s a great difference in terms of what we want,” he said.

The other difference is that the traditional civil rights groups’ agenda, unlike that of the new activists, is more closely aligned with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

The Urban League, for example, is calling for a $12 minimum wage rather than the $15 hike that many Black Lives Matter activists have pushed.

What About The Presidential Candidates?

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who writes about African-American politics, said that activists have been successful in getting the attention of candidates.

“Because of protests, politicians are being forced to look at these issues,” she said.

Their influence was particularly on display earlier this month at progressive conference Netroots Nation, where a group protested speeches by ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. O’Malley later apologized for using the phrase "black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” at the gathering; Sanders, who was criticized for appearing dismissive of the protesters, addressed those complaints in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Leading Democratic candidates have been significantly more vocal in recent weeks about the kinds of policy reforms these activists are pushing.

Clinton has called for body cameras in every police department in America and a rethinking of how America prosecutes non-violent drug crimes. Sanders recently proposed cutting federal funding for police departments that don’t overhaul their officer training, and O’Malley has advocated for major reforms to police transparency.

And they have also used new language to address activists’ concerns. Clinton has decried “institutional racism,” Sanders dubbed it “structural racism,” and O’Malley used the phrase “triumphs of white racism”

But some of the activists want two specific policies that are more controversial: a massive public jobs program that would help reduce black unemployment, and a net reduction in the amount the U.S. spends on law enforcement, premised on the idea that America is over-policed.

Sanders is for the former; it’s not clear Clinton or O’Malley would endorse either idea.

The activists in the Black Lives Matter movement say they are unsatisfied so far with the presidential candidates.

“I haven’t really seen anything except for them saying ‘black lives matter,” Shariff said.

“I think that some folks are taking notice of it, but many of them have said nothing and done nothing,” Carruthers said. “I remain skeptical.”

Morial too expressed some dissatisfaction.

“I have not seen any of them lay out any plans that properly address and champion these issues,” Morial said.

The Republican Candidates

The Republican candidates have largely rejected both the rhetoric and the policies of the emerging young civil rights activists, opposing the economic policies they back and generally avoiding rhetoric like “black lives matter.”

Bush, in fact, suggested that the phrase “black lives matter” is a “slogan.”

The activists decry what they call “respectability politics,” the idea that problems for African-Americans are rooted in absent black fathers and failures of blacks to do enough to help themselves.

But Bush, in an op-ed in May after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, leaned in this direction, arguing “an effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents.” (The former governor is also controversial with black activists in Florida because he signed one of the nation’s first “Stand Your Ground” laws, which some African-Americans say made it easier for George Zimmerman to be found not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2012 death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.)

At the same time, some of Republican candidates have embraced criminal justice reform, an idea backed by both the new activists, the traditional civil rights groups, and a growing number of conservatives like the Koch brothers.

In a recent speech, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for changing job forms that require a person to indicate if they have a committed a felony, a policy that often makes it harder for ex-offenders to get jobs. Civil rights groups have long advocated so-called “ban the box” legislation.

Christie also urged the adoption of community policing like in Camden, New Jersey, the same town Obama praised in May.

“The war on drugs has become a war without end,” Christie said, calling it a “failure.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is pushing a bill in the Senate that would end the ban on people convicted low-level drug crimes from getting food stamps, and he has stressed the need to roll back minimum sentencing laws.

“I tell people that I think they're not looking if they don't think that the incarceration problem in our country is not skewed towards one race,” Paul said in March. “I don't think it's purposeful but I do think it is actual and it is real and we should do something about it.”