While Democratic delegates were busy nominating the first woman to lead a major-party presidential ticket, Black Lives Matter protesters were downtown outside Philadelphia City Hall driving home a message their own: “Don’t vote for Hillary, she’s killing black people.”
The contrast between the chanting activists outside on the gritty, hot Philadelphia streets and the cheering delegates inside the festive, air-conditioned convention hall are the starkest indications yet that that the Black Lives Matter movement is poised to split between people who support more vigorous protests and those who favor working within the political system.
Tuesday’s Black DNC Resistance March attracted hundreds of people of all ages and races. Marchers wore “Stop Killing Black People” T-shirts and waved signs depicting the names of the scores of black men and women killed by police in recent years. Some protesters carried large white banners that read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself,” (a reference to the email scandal that engulfed the former secretary of state) and “Hillary has blood on her hands.” A large contingent of police officers surrounded the protesters as they converged with another rally dubbed “Shut Down the DNC” before they headed toward the Wells Fargo Arena convention site in South Philadelphia.
Hillary Clinton is lightyears to the left of the Republican Party on the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, but protesters took issue with Clinton’s past comments about black youth. In 1996, Clinton called black teenagers “super-predators” who needed to be brought to heel. She apologized for those comments in February. The demonstrators see her past support for her husband’s welfare reform and crime policies as negatives. Activists argue that those moves did little to improve conditions on the ground in black communities.
The Democratic National Convention has unfolded against a backdrop of deep poverty and a police department struggling to clean up its image. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country and the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has one of the worst reputations. African American communities in particular suffered under Frank Rizzo, an infamous police officer who rose through the ranks to become police commissioner, serving from 1967 to 1971. In 1972, he was elected mayor. For the next eight years Rizzo continued to wield tremendous influence over the police department.
Under Rizzo’s watch, police brutality surged in Philadelphia. Between 1970 and 1978, Philadelphia police shot and killed 162 people. The force’s reputation reached its nadir in 1985, when the police department bombed a rowhouse belonging to MOVE, a black extremist group, killing 11 people including several children.
A Department of Justice investigation found that between 2007 and 2013, PPD shot and killed people at a rate six times higher than New York City police officers. In 2014, a Philadelphia police officer shot and killed 26-year-old Brandon Tate-Brown during a traffic stop. Originally, the police said Tate-Brown was reaching for a gun in his rental car. They later changed their story and said he got out of the car and ran behind it. His death sparked Black Lives Matter protests similar to the ones that have occurred elsewhere in the country.
While the anti-Hillary Clinton groups marched, another Black Lives Matter group took the stage at the convention to support her. DNC officials invited the Mothers of the Movement, women whose children have been killed by police, to address the convention—much to the chagrin of Philadelphia police. The city’s police union said that they were insulted by the invitation since the Democrats did not invite widows of police officers to speak. “It is sad that to win an election Mrs. Clinton must pander to the interests of people who do not know all the facts, while the men and women they seek to destroy are outside protecting the political institutions of this country," the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement.
The roster of Democratic National Convention speakers did include law enforcement officials, including former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey who spoke passionately about violence against police officers. Last week, Republicans invited police officers to address their national convention, but they did not include any relatives of people killed by police officers.
The Mothers of the Movement received a standing ovation as the audience chanted, “Black Lives Matter!” Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in a jail cell after a traffic stop in Texas, said she planned to vote for Clinton and said, “She knows that when a young black life is cut short, it’s a national loss.” Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the teenager who was shot and killed as he listened to loud music in a Florida parking lot, said to cheers, “Hillary isn’t afraid to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Some Black Lives Matter activists continue to argue that the Democratic Party leaders were using the grieving mothers to pander to black people. But the mothers, some of whom welled up with tears during their remarks, delivered a powerful message of inclusiveness that resonated with the audience. “We are imploring all of you to vote this Election Day,” said Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman. “Hillary Clinton is one mother who can ensure that our movement succeeds.”