Black Lives Matter playing a prominent role at Democratic convention

A night Hillary Clinton’s campaign designed to showcase her many years of involvement in social justice causes hit an emotional high point Tuesday with an appearance by a group of women whose sons or daughters were victims of gun violence or encounters with law enforcement.

The Mothers of the Movement, as the eight women call themselves, provided one of the starkest contrasts between the two party conventions.

Republican nominee Donald Trump focused repeatedly on “law and order,” and his convention featured repeated calls of “blue lives matter.” The Democrats put a spotlight on the complex issues of urban violence, easy access to guns and the accusation that systemic racism has warped the criminal justice system. 

In their remarks, the mothers portrayed Clinton as an ally in their movement.

"I didn't want this spotlight," said Sybrina Fulton, whose 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch member in an act that sparked a national debate over Florida's stand-your-ground law, which allows use of lethal force in some circumstances.

She praised Clinton for having compassion and understanding to support grieving mothers, courage to fight for gun safety legislation, and a plan to repair the divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

“This is not about being politically correct. This is about saving our children,” she said.

"Hillary Clinton isn't afraid to say ‘black lives matter,’" said Lucia McBath. "She doesn't build walls around her heart. Not only did she listen to our problems, she invited us to become part of the solution."

McBath’s 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 12, 2012, after an argument over whether Davis and his friends were playing music too loudly. Dunn, a white software developer, ultimately was found guilty of first-degree murder.

The decision to invite the mothers provided a way for Clinton’s campaign to associate itself with the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that featured less politically charged personalities than some of its youthful champions.

Still, the mothers’ appearance has caused controversy. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police said its members were "shocked and saddened" that widows of fallen police officers were not included in the lineup.

Democrats responded that there was no conflict between honoring the majority of police officers while putting a spotlight on victims of police misconduct.

Former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said from the podium that "black lives matter," but also talked about his brother who served as a police officer. 

"There is no tension between protecting those who valiantly risk their lives to serve ... and ensuring that everyone is treated fairly by police," Holder said.

Presenting the mothers on the same night that Bill Clinton spoke was also a way to potentially associate him with the movement’s goals and defuse a point of tension within the Democratic coalition.

The former president has clashed publicly with Black Lives Matters protesters at a couple of campaign events after they challenged him over the anti-crime bill he signed in 1994, which they blame for the sharp increase in incarceration rates of young black men.

Experts have argued over how much impact the Clinton-era crime law had on incarceration, noting that much of the increase took place years before the law passed. 

But the law has become a potent symbol, and the tension over it has made some Democrats worry that younger black voters might not turn out to cast ballots for her in November at the high levels that the Democrats need for victory. 

While Hillary Clinton has embraced some of the causes championed by Black Lives Matter and has tried to break with the legacy of the 1990s on criminal justice issues, neither she nor the movement have fully embraced each other.

The relationship she has forged with the mothers has played a significant role in her effort to communicate her criminal justice policies. 

Two weeks ago, she appeared at a historically black church in Philadelphia with one of the women, Tanya Brown-Dickerson. Clinton spoke at the church in the aftermath of the deaths of two more black men in policed-involved shootings and the lethal rampage directed at Dallas police officers patrolling a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

“People are crying out for criminal justice reform,” Clinton said at the church. “Families are being torn apart by excessive incarceration. Young people are being threatened and humiliated by racial profiling.”

DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter who is attending the convention here, noted that movement activists have met with Clinton. He welcomed what he called a Democratic Party platform “more progressive and inclusive than even I thought it would be.”

McKesson said he worried that Clinton was taking young voters for granted, and he would not say whether he would have preferred a larger role for himself or for his movement, rather than the exclusive focus on the mothers.

“But Trump cannot be president. And this is not an election about the lesser of two evils,” he said.  On one side there is a “candidate who is openly racist and bigoted. And then there’s a candidate that people have concerns about,” he said.

The tension reflects the difference between elected officials and activist movements for social change, said Benjamin Jealous, former president of the NAACP.

“Movements are always misunderstood by people in our country. And yet all of us should be grateful for the work movements do to make all of our lives better.” he said. “The reality is that everybody’s life will be safer when black lives matter, too.”

Asked if there was a need for Black Lives Matter to mature politically, he responded: “I think there’s room to mature right at the top of the Republican ticket.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more 2016 campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter

 

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