Sanders’ dodge on Black Lives Matter

May 5, 2015

Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has little to offer in the way of solutions to police brutality and racism, writes Ben Taylor.

SENATOR AND Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders of Vermont was on Wolf, CNN's 1-2 p.m. dose of Wolf Blitzer on April 30, when Blitzer asked Bernie for his thoughts on Baltimore. What followed was an embarrassingly mainstream right-liberal slew of words from this supposedly "left" candidate. I'll let Bernie put his foot in his mouth:

BLITZER: I want to get your thoughts on Baltimore. First, we've been watching this very closely, if you were president of the United States what would you do about this. It's a crisis, not just in Baltimore, but in a lot of other communities around the country.

SANDERS: [waves his hand] It's primarily a local and state issue, but the president has the bully pulpit, the president has the eyes of the nation.

Look, the issue here is...uh...I was a mayor for eight years, being a cop is a very very difficult job. But the word has got to get out that when police act inappropriately, and of course in this case there has to be a thorough investigation. But for too many years, too many...mostly Black suspects, have been treated terribly and in some cases murdered. That is unacceptable. And police officers have got to be held accountable for their actions.

Second of all, in the neighborhood where this gentleman lives [sic], as I understand it, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent, over 50 percent. What we have got to do as a nation is understand that we have got to create millions of jobs, to put people back to work, to make sure that kids are in schools, and not in jails.

So short term, we've got to make sure the police have cameras. We've got to make sure that we got real police reform so that suspects are treated with respect. Long term, we got to make sure that our young people are working, they're in schools and not hanging out on street corners.

BLITZER: So as president, though, what do you do about this? How do you fix those problems? We've been hearing about those problems, as you and I know, for decades.

SANDERS: I, along with John Conyers, of Michigan, have introduced legislation that would create a million jobs for young people in this country, in some of the hardest pressed areas of America. Real unemployment is a serious problem in this country. We've got to put our people back to work. I think the federal government has got to work with state and local governments to make sure that we move toward...well, In Burlington Vermont when I was the mayor, we called it "community policing" where police are perceived as part of the community--the good guys, rather than as interlopers, people who are from the outside coming in.

Image from

THAT'S THE entirety of the video titled "Sanders speaks out on Baltimore protests" shared on Bernie Sander's official YouTube page, so we can reasonably assume that he stands by these statements.

So what are Bernie Sander's "great left hope" solutions to police brutality? "The bully pulpit" (i.e. words, not action), body cameras, vague reforms, and a form of "community policing" that sounds an awful lot like "we just need more Black cops in Black neighborhoods." It certainly doesn't sound like radical reform to me. If the hope with Sanders' candidacy is to push Hillary Clinton to the left, it looks like we shouldn't hold our collective breath.

Worse yet, Bernie uses the high unemployment in Baltimore to dodge talking about police brutality, and turn the conversation to his preferred economism. Serving as a prime example of how not to do solidarity (not that the word "solidarity" slipped his lips during this segment), Bernie dodges a direct question about Baltimore, opting instead to speak about a pet topic he's more comfortable with (his jobs bill from last year).

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

No serious left activist should follow his example. Are economic issues like unemployment, the minimum wage and massive income inequality pressing issues that need to be raised? Of course! Should they be used to duck the pressing social questions raised by Baltimore specifically, and #BlackLivesMatter more broadly? Of course not! Perhaps if Bernie had spent 5-10 minutes talking about the epidemic of police brutality (rather than making it sound like a local issue), the crippling oppression of the New Jim Crow and the Prison Industrial Complex and the kinds of reforms oppressed communities themselves are talking about--perhaps then Bernie could go on to talk for a minute or two about his youth jobs bill, which he introduced seven-and-a-half months ago.

The final disconnect from the reality on the streets of West Baltimore, is Sanders' bizarre emphasis on "keeping kids in school and work, and off of street corners," as a response to Baltimore. Bernie assures us that he'll "make sure that kids are in schools, and not in jails" which sounds an awful lot like he's placing the burden of responsibility for police brutality on the individual being victimized--a right-wing talking point. A meaningfully "left" candidate ought to have used this time to talk about the cops themselves, the structural nature of the problem, and how racialized social control operates. It's as if the real problem for Bernie Sanders was that on April 12, Freddie Gray (aka "Black suspect" in Bernie's lingo, since he doesn't mention Freddie Gray's name once) wasn't at school or work- not that he was arrested for walking while Black. Somehow Bernie managed to completely avoid talking meaningfully about police brutality, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, militarized policing and a broken judicial system while giving us his "thoughts" on Baltimore. Bernie has no answers for #BlackLivesMatter.

UPDATE: Bernie Sanders also spoke on Baltimore during his first interview as a candidate on The Ed Show on April 30. While he does say "police brutality" and "Freddie Gray" during this interview, it follows the same formula as his appearance on Wolf--vague reforms, body cameras, and changing the subject.

First published at Red-Debt-Thirty.

Further Reading

From the archives