The Democratic Debate Was Proof That Protests Work

The Democratic Debate Was Proof That Protests Work

Last night, five Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage for their first debate hosted by CNN. The candidates—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee—fielded questions from Anderson Cooper about a wide range of topics, including economic inequality and national security. However, one of the most telling moments during the two-hour debate was when Don Lemon read a question from a Facebook user: “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?”

In July, at Netroots Nation—the largest gathering of progressives in the country—Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the presidential town hall during Sanders’s speech. He fumbled on stage and left angrily. O’Malley fared even worse when he said, “All lives matter.” Clinton, who did not attend Netroots Nation, had the privilege of firming up her answer beforehand and later said “Black lives matter” in a Facebook Q&A.

Many Sanders supporters took to Twitter after Netroots to express their distaste for the protesters. Some said interrupting the candidate’s speech was rude or “not the right way” to go about addressing the issue of racism and police brutality. Others said that the protests discredited the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. The message from those (mostly white) critics was very clear: Black people, stay in your place.

After Sanders’s poor handling of the protesters and the subsequent criticism from Black Lives Matter activists on his inability to stray from his pet issue of economic inequality and actually address systemic racism, Sanders released a racial equality platform. O’Malley also sought to do damage control by unveiling his plan for criminal justice reform.

Last night, Sanders answered Cooper’s question with an emphatic “Black lives matter!” Not all of the answers from the other candidates were thoughtful or encouraging, including Jim Webb, who came close to saying, “All lives matter” when he responded with, “Every life in this country matters.” But for the first time, the issue of police brutality and institutional racism made it onto the stage at a presidential debate in a substantial way—proof of the power of disruptive protest.