Last weekend at Netroots Nation, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted a presidential candidates’ town-hall meeting. They took over the agenda by calling out the names of black women who have died in police custody and demanded that Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley answer questions on structural racism.
Some attendees were skeptical of the protest—even outright hostile. They argued that it stopped progressive candidates from being able to make their case or answer questions on other topics. And they seemed embarrassed that the candidates were put on the spot—and more embarrassed that the candidates performed so poorly.
Both candidates did damage to themselves; Sanders was defensive, and O’Malley’s response included the words “white lives matter.” But Sanders had far more to gain by getting this right.
I approach this incident as a fan of Bernie Sanders. But when he had the opportunity to rewrite his own narrative and broaden his own base, he failed.
The last few weeks have been good for Sanders—big crowds, solid fundraising numbers. His candidacy has already made an impact on the race and, presumably, on Hillary Clinton. It was exciting: He was speaking the truth about inequality and Wall Street, as he always had, and his numbers were climbing toward 20 percent nationally and within striking distance in New Hampshire and Iowa.
But anyone paying attention also knows that there has been a thread of doubt in his rise: Could Sanders ever make headway beyond Iowa and New Hampshire? Does he have what it takes to capture the hearts of black and brown voters who are such a significant part of the Democratic coalition?
With the protest, Sanders was presented an opportunity on a silver platter: He could overcome his perceived negatives and grow his base. All he would have had to do was act with a little humility.
But instead, he talked over the protesters, got defensive about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his script. Essentially, he appeared to be arguing that economics and class trump all. For an audience mourning the death of Sandra Bland, a woman who was arrested at a traffic stop on the way to her new job before mysteriously dying in police custody, the jobs program Sanders suggested just didn’t seem like a sufficient answer.
But there was also a tactical error—a mistake in the basic craft of politics: the failure to read the room. It was hard to watch him refuse to respond to people shouting and calling out for their lives. (When Vice President Joe Biden was interrupted by pro-immigration protesters at the prior Netroots Nation, he paused, applauded them, and answered their concerns.) It was a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance when Sanders said the country needed a democratic revolution, as he looked out at one staring him in the face and ignored it.