words by Eamon Whalen
photos by Adja Gildersleve courtesy of NOC
Up until this point everything about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee has been unprecedented. He’s a self-defined democratic socialist that unapologetically advocates for single payer healthcare, tuition free college, $15 minimum wage and revitalized unions, serious action on Climate Change, ending Citizens United, and dramatically increasing taxes on Wall Street and corporate America. With the financial support of a record-setting grassroots campaign behind him, he just tied former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and went on to defeat her in the New Hampshire primaries. Even a few months ago this was unfathomable, and his recent surge has progressives, myself among them, collectively looking at each other like: this actually might be real. To use Sanders’ chosen phrase, these are the makings of a “political revolution.”
It should be no surprise then, that while both Sanders and Clinton were in Minneapolis this past weekend for the Humphrey-Mondale DFL dinner, Sanders was the candidate that agreed to attend Neighborhoods Organizing For Change’s (NOC) Black America forum in North Minneapolis last Friday. The event was an “informal conversation” meant to clarify which policies were most important to Black people, and how Sanders would address their specific grievances. To quote NOC’s field director Mike Griffin as he addressed the audience of 1,200 seated in Patrick Henry high school’s gym, Black people “have been waiting on a political revolution for some 300 years.”
Sanders isn’t the first well-meaning White liberal to court the Black vote, and he won’t be the last. Which is why the atmosphere of the room ranged from cautious enthusiasm to diligent inquisition. Many felt disheartened that Sanders performance at the forum lacked the specificity with the Black community that was suppose to define the conversation. He also impressively wiggled himself around the elephant in the room: reinvestment in Black communities that is explicit and specific; otherwise called reparations.
Despite a significant lead among young and female voters, Sanders still trails Clinton among Black voters by a wide margin. So in the past few months he has intensified his tone on racial justice, meeting with Black activists around the country and declaring that he’ll do more to solve institutional racism than any other candidate. He’s also assembled a small coalition of notable Black endorsements including Cornel West, Harry Belafonte, Ben Jealous, Killer Mike, Lil B and Minnesota 5th district congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison is Sanders’ most prominent Washington D.C supporter thus far, and introduced him Friday as the heir to President Obama’s “Yes We Can” vision of America. Just days before the forum, Sanders released his most pointed advertisement yet, where Erica Garner, an activist and the daughter of Eric Garner, revealed her endorsement.
Despite these efforts to position himself as the candidate for Black folks, Sanders has caught flack for proposing a class-based, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats vision to address disparities that are inextricably racist in origin. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats if some boats have holes in them, to paraphrase another activist, Nick Muhammad, who spoke before Sanders appearance. Though a cadre of Sanders online supporters have paraded his involvement with C.O.R.E in the 1960s to the point of becoming a punch-line, the critique remains that Sanders still doesn’t totally understand the continuum of crises that the Black community faces. His speech and performance on the panel did little to dispel that notion. Sanders held fast to his economics-first perspective, and wasn’t able to articulate the conceptual framework of his racial justice platform -- which names five specific points of “racial violence” inflicted on Black and Brown people -- with close to the level of sophistication that his website does.
It wasn’t until Sanders was twice interrupted by Black Lives Matters activists this summer, that his campaign even put forth that racial justice platform. Following the disruptions, the loudest Sanders supporters posited on social media and through op-eds that the protesters were doing more harm than good. They were metaphorically “pissing on their best friend,” while the Republicans only got stronger. This opinion is a misread of the relationship between Black people and the Democratic party, not to mention a lack of respect for Black people’s political agency.
Black Americans represent by far the most loyal constituency to the Democratic party, and are essential to their electoral success. As logic goes, this relationship would qualify them as much as any, to hold a radical civil rights champion’s proverbial feet to the fire when he courts their vote. Despite the increasingly tribalistic nature of our present political climate, it’s entirely possible that a Black voter can intensely criticize Sanders and still believe he is the best candidate for the job, just like it is entirely possible that Sanders can criticize President Obama’s policies and still believe he was a good president. In a healthy Democracy, political support and intellectual critique shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
This dynamic was also expressed by NOC civic and political engagement director Wintana Melekin in her introduction, telling the crowd that the forum did not represent an endorsement and that the audience should be critical of him, because their continued loyalty to Democrats need not be assumed. I spoke with Sanders’ fellow panelist, NOC canvassing director Roderick Adams on Sunday. Adams explained that, especially in this moment of a growing social movement for Black liberation, Democrats are on thin ice with Black voters. “With brothers and sisters dying in the street and dying in jail cells, and unemployment rates at historic levels, what we’re looking for is someone who’s not just going to give rhetoric,” said Adams. “We need a leader that recognizes the specific harm that’s been done and being done to the Black community.”
The contrast between the Sanders campaign and the nature of the event reared it’s head most symbolically in the form of music. As the gym filled up, songs by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Gil-Scot Heron played, as well as one by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis’ founder and rapper Michael McDowell. Then, to just about everyone in the room’s visible surprise, a country song with a strong working-class theme blasted through the speakers to signal the arrival of “the Bern.” Perhaps the Sanders’ staffers manning the aux-cord thought they were still in Iowa, but the transition foreshadowed the lack of thoughtful preparation that was to come.
After a short speech that sounded remarkably similar to the ones Sanders made to majority-white audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire, he sat down at a panel with seven North Minneapolis residents, including moderator and NOC executive director Anthony Newby. Newby explained the panel was chosen intentionally for their specific descendence from slaves, as well as their diverse expertise in topics like labor, environmental and criminal justice, and entrepreneurship. After fielding a few questions on reducing impediments for Black small business owners and ensuring he’d support voting rights and employment programs for convicted felons, Sanders was interrupted by an audience member. Mica Grimm, another founder of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who briefly met with Sanders on his last visit to the Twin Cities, called out from the front row.
“Germany paid out 90 billion in reparations over the past 50 years to survivors of the holocaust. What is the difference in America doing that for the people they kidnapped?”
In early January, at the Brown and Black Forum in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Sanders was asked if he supported reparations for Black Americans. He explained that he did not support them due to their political impossibility and divisiveness. Thanks to a series of articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates pressing Sanders to compare that impossibility and divisiveness to his other policies, reparations has been injected into the political dialogue. I spoke with Grimm on Monday, asking what triggered her spontaneous disruption. “I was frustrated with how easy he was getting off. It was too important of a moment, to have a presidential candidate in North Minneapolis is historic,” she said. “So for him to come in and give us the same old run-around, I know he’s better than that.”
Since that initial answer in Iowa, Sanders hadn’t addressed, or been pressed to address the topic, and the visibly nervous Senator continued as if Grimm's disruption had not even happened. Newby acknowledged her statement, and pivoted to the potential for “specific redress” for environmental injustices done on the Black community, one of Sanders’ platform’s five points of racial violence. After a brief vignette about visiting a food desert in Baltimore, Sanders explained that he would target communities “who have been poorest, the longest, and make sure they get the assistance that they need to get themselves up on their own two feet.” Without missing a beat, Grimm called out from the first row once more.
“Sort of like reparations?”
An increasingly ornery Sanders replied, “sort of like investing in communities that need it the most. That’s what we should be doing.” In Grimm’s opinion, his refusal to call his reinvestment reparations reflects not only a lack of understanding but a political fear. “Instead of trying to expand on the definition of what reparations could mean, he’s avoiding it because it’s too risky a political move right now,” said Grimm. “The code-word is always divisive, but that means he knows that there are white people that are too racist to even try to understand [reparations], that may otherwise vote for him.” She also believes that due to the current state of heightened activism, he’s not going to be able to avoid the topic. “People are more organized right now. We’re having more conversations about this stuff and it’s inspired us to put pressure on politicians,” said Grimm. “We’re just tired of getting promised things that we never get. We’re tired of being courted without any political gain.”
Though on the face they may sound inconceivable, there is a historical precedent for reparations, not just in Germany but also in the United States. In 1988, the families of victims of Japanese internment camps during WWII were given 1.2 billion dollars by the U.S government. Just this past January, victims of torture at the hands of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge were paid 5.5 million dollars. Grimm believes part of the reason reparations are such a taboo political topic goes back to historical stereotypes of Black people and irresponsibility. “White people don’t trust Black people with money,” said Grimm. “By refusing reparations and saying that the federal or state or local government needs to decide where these resources go, it’s saying that Black people don’t know what’s best for their own communities.”
Sanders continued on the topic of environmental justice and asked the audience if they knew that many people in low-income communities have asthma, to which several audience members called out “we know,” as Newby had established we were within a mile of the HERC garbage incinerator just moments before. Panelist and small-business owner Felicia Perry brought up the case of her son’s severe asthma, and once again pressed Sanders to get specific, and say the word.
“I know you’re scared to say Black and I know you’re scared to say reparations. It seems like whenever we talk about us getting something for the systematic oppression and exploitation of our people, we have to include every other person of color. So today, can we talk about specifically, Black people and reparations.”
Sanders replied, and chose his words carefully, doing little to disprove that he was scared to say reparations:
“What I just indicated, and we may have a disagreement because [victims of environmental injustice] it’s not just Black. It is Latino. There are poor rural areas where it’s White. I believe that in a country that has more income and wealth inequality than any country, the time is long overdue to start investing in poor communities. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty than any country. What I believe we should do is to invest most heavily in those communities most in need. When you have 35% of Black children living in poverty, half of the kids in this country in public schools in free or reduced lunches, when youth unemployment in the African-American community is 51%, those are exactly the types of communities that you invest in.”
In the eyes of Adams, this exchange rang home the fact that Sanders still has a lot of work to do. “He was at a Black forum, and we asked him specifically about Black issues, and he went back to the class approach,” said Adams. “That Black people can’t have our issues and questions addressed and answered, it says something about our place in this country, and it says something about the state of White progressives. They fear to really stand with Black people,” he said. While Sanders maintains that his color-blind policies will be a remedy for Black poverty and unemployment, the significance of making these policies explicitly race-based would be to redress the deliberate theft from the Black community that is responsible for the disproportionate poverty that Sanders speaks so fervently about.
In the last Democratic debate, Sanders professed his admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In many ways, Sanders proposals for dramatic, strategic reinvestment in our nation’s infrastructure and underserved communities sounds like a new New Deal. However, the pre and post-WWII policies that are largely credited for building this nation’s middle-class, wouldn’t have been possible without the exclusion of Black people. Adams, who primarily organizes low-wage workers, asked Sanders how he could assure that his class-based investment strategy wouldn’t do the same. Adams asked:
“It is a historic fact that general improvement in economic conditions doesn’t necessarily benefit Black or Native communities. Socialist strategies have historically left large swaths of Black and Native communities behind. It was true of the New Deal, it was true of the G.I. Bill and it was especially true of the Federal Housing Bill. It was also true of Obamacare and the response to the Great Recession, which Black folks still haven’t recovered. In Minnesota, where the White unemployment rate has dipped below 3%, the Black unemployment rate has risen above 14%. So I’m asking what affirmative, concrete steps will you take to ensure that your trillion dollar federal investment strategy does not repeat the mistakes of the past and entrench existing inequalities?”
After clarifying the question with Adams, Sanders replied:
“You have my word that when we make an investment over the next five years rebuilding our infrastructure, that money will go into the communities that need it the most, to rebuild their own communities.”
This statement was immediately met with an echoing chorus of “how,” from the audience. Seemingly this was the question the entire event was building towards, and all Sanders could give was his word. Black poverty is markedly different than White poverty because of historical exploitation and theft, not coincidence. In fact, Minneapolis, as Adams alluded to, is one of the foremost examples of how race and class are different, yet work in tandem. Which brings up another odd characteristic of Sanders’ performance: the complete absence of any local grounding. Granted, he is campaigning in nearly every state in the nation, but he agreed to attend a Black forum, in the city with the worst racial disparities in the nation. Is it too much to ask that he should’ve acknowledged that?
So when Sanders spoke of wealth inequality, couldn’t he have acknowledged that despite Minneapolis’ “miracle middle class," we have the worst financial inequality between White and Black people in the nation? When he spoke of education, couldn’t he have mentioned that our achievement gap is the worst in the nation? When he spoke of our broken criminal justice system, couldn’t he have mentioned the death of Jamar Clark and the looming grand jury for his killers? When he spoke of unity in the face of Donald Trump’s demagoguery, couldn’t he have mentioned the White supremacist attack on the 4th Precinct protests? “He came to literally one of the worst places to live for Black folks, and he didn’t even know it,” said Adams.
While Sanders may be still ignorant of the severity of institutional racism, perhaps it’s not a willful ignorance. This is his first time ever having to consider what it means to represent a Black constituency. He’s spent the entirety of his political career in Vermont, where one percent of the population is Black. I posed this idea to Adams, who disagreed. “I don’t think it’s an ignorance issue, I think it’s an effort issue. I just don’t think he’s taken the effort to really examine the problem. It takes the effort of him picking up a book and reading about Jim Crow or slavery, and understanding how horrific it was, and how it correlates to issues that we’re going through right now,” said Adams. “We just hoped for so much more from Bernie. He’s different, it feels like. So you would hope he takes on a different view and speaks on these issues more than any other politician.” he said.
Despite these misgivings, it is extraordinary that a candidate who in past months has spoken to audiences nearing 30,000 decided to hold space with 1,200 in a high school gym. A campaign reporter with Buzzfeed tweeted that the event was unlike any other on the campaign trail thus far. However, Sanders spent most of his time telling the audience about problems they knew far more intimately than he did, without explaining why they exist in the first place. He’s also shown he can be pushed by potential constituents and dramatically change his tune, something Adams acknowledged. “Almost everything else about him is spot on. I think he’s our guy, but to step inside that room and not have a plan for, or be well versed in Black issues, is a problem,” said Adams. “I’m not asking him to become an African-American studies major overnight, but these are things he has to address more specifically to get the Black vote. He’s talking about a political revolution. Well, our revolution looks different.”
After Adams’s question, Sanders announced he had time for one more before he had to leave for the DFL dinner. Clyde Bellecourt, the 79-year-old Anishinaabe founder of the American Indian Movement, stepped forth from the audience and expressed his frustration at the continued erasure of Indigenous people, their invisibility in conversations around racial equity, and their treaties that have been ignored by the federal government for too long. The moment was tense, as the long-winded Bellecourt was pressed repeatedly by Newby for a question, and Sanders nearly made the mistake of exiting the stage before answering that he would do everything in his power to restore treaties with Indigenous tribes. To parse out the origins of America’s racial hierarchy, and the place of Black and Indigenous groups within it, would take another article, respectively. But as made apparent by Sanders and outspoken activists like Grimm, Adams and Bellecourt, everyone’s political revolution doesn’t look the same. And for a White candidate to expect long-excluded groups of color to fully support his own, calls for a deeper interrogation of how that revolution might need to be reshaped.