Black Lives Matter forces campaigns to toss their strategies on black voters

Patrisse Cullors speaks at a rally last year calling for civilian oversight of a proposed rebuilding of Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles.

Patrisse Cullors speaks at a rally last year calling for civilian oversight of a proposed rebuilding of Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Democrats have never been more confident that their chances of hanging onto the White House hinge on black voters, who tipped key states toward President Obama -- but they have never been less confident, it seems, about how to talk to them.

The Black Lives Matter campaign is seeing to it that the rules they relied on for courting the vote no longer apply.

The potent social media-driven movement, sparked in the aftermath of Florida teen Trayvon Martin’s death and reignited in the racial unrest of the last year, has 2016 contenders scrambling to adjust their strategies. The protesters involved are proving masterful at refocusing the spotlight. Candidates who might have otherwise been complacent given their high marks on legislative report cards from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and endorsements from an older generation of black leaders have had to more directly confront uncomfortable questions of racial inequality and the mistreatment of blacks by the criminal justice system.

“We want to ensure that these candidates will actually deal with the issues that black people face,” said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the movement who is from Los Angeles. “The reality is that it’s still not legal to be black in this country.”


The group’s demands are likely to drive discussion at a major conference of the National Urban League here Friday, where candidates of both parties will spar over the best approach for improving the lives of African Americans. Among the attendees are Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, who both found themselves pushed off balance by Black Lives Matter in recent weeks on the campaign trail.

Black Lives Matter inserted itself into the race through a few well-timed and highly publicized confrontations with candidates -- several of which exposed politicians’ tone-deafness on racial issues. Often it was through a simple guerrilla action, during which activists demanded candidates repeat the words, “Black lives matter.”

Many flubbed it. Their frequent response that “all lives matter” was perceived by many blacks as a refusal to acknowledge the particular risks faced by those with black skin. Republicans generally pushed back, accusing the activists of stoking racial division.

Democrats, though, are aggressively positioning themselves as empathetic to the outrage that Black Lives Matter has tapped into. They are reeducating themselves on how to talk to black voters, sending surrogates to meet with the activists, shifting their rhetoric and -- in some cases -- issuing apologies.

Cullors said the group wants candidates to address poverty, racial profiling by police, incarceration and homelessness.

“What we are seeing is a group of voters that are getting their political legs up under them and beginning to define what politics are going to be like for them post-Obama,” said Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for the Obama campaign. “You will have a hard time getting to the White House as a Democrat without speaking to them and including them in your coalition.”

The activists at the forefront are sidestepping the usual brokers whom Democrats -- especially white Democrats -- go through to reach out to black voters.

“There is a sense that the traditional civil-rights organizations have been far too cozy with whoever and not making clear enough demands,” said Fredrick Cornelius Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University. “They see these people as having failed them.”


It’s a point of concern with some of the older groups, like the Urban League, which embrace the attention Black Lives Matter has managed to direct toward racial disparity and injustice but express frustration that their own work in the trenches is getting overlooked.

“We have been talking police accountability since before these incidents occurred,” Urban League President Marc Morial said of the events that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. “We say, ‘Look at the Urban League’s plan. This is part of our agenda.’”

The new generation, though, is decidedly more confrontational.

“Until we hear from candidates, beyond just saying ‘Black lives matter’ -- until we hear them really address how we are continuously cut out of the American democracy, we’re going to continue to shut debates down,” Cullors vowed. “We’re going to continue to call elected officials out. I mean, we’ve tried to set up meetings with elected officials, we’ve tried to send them emails -- it does not work.”


Now some candidates are going to them. Clinton’s director for black outreach was on hand when the activists gathered at their inaugural Movement for Black Lives Convening this month in Cleveland. The campaign said she was there to listen.

“We felt it was important to hear from those gathered in Cleveland,” said a statement from Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney. “In order to implement real change, we need to work together in crafting policy, raising awareness and building a coalition to ensure every American knows what it means to be secure, safe and free.”

The progressive grass-roots behemoth Democracy for America announced it was upending its advocacy model amid charges from the black activists that the overwhelmingly white group was oblivious to the urgency of their cause.

The African American activists, though, remain unimpressed. They say all of the candidates continue to fall back on tired talking points, speaking in broad strokes about civil rights without delivering a concrete agenda.


“Sometimes this country wants to keep its head in the sand and say, ‘We don’t have race issues,’” said Pastor Karen Anderson of Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florissant, Mo., not far from where the rioting took place in Ferguson last year. She recently sat in on a round table Clinton held on racial justice.

“Presidential candidates must hear the message, or they risk losing support and engagement from black voters,” Anderson said.

The movement threatens to be a force in electoral politics, despite the spontaneous nature of many of its actions and its loose structure. Black activists have more strongly emphasized elections in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, where they led a push to vote out local officials, and some longtime organizers with deep experience mobilizing voters are starting to build coalitions around Black Lives Matter.

“The organizers of this movement are aware of the need to be engaged in electoral politics,” said Andra Gillespie, a professor at Emory College in Atlanta who studies political participation of African Americans. She said the organizing conference the group held in Cleveland last weekend was a signal the movement is coalescing in a way that lends itself to putting boots on the ground come election time.


The candidates are finding themselves constantly tested, even in states where there is little African American presence. Kareem Jordan, a criminal justice professor in Lowell, Mass., drove to Clinton’s town hall Tuesday in Nashua, N.H., where he was one of a handful of blacks in an audience of 250. He pushed the candidate on mass incarceration.

Clinton, who decried racism in sentencing and emphasized the need to build trust between police and local communities, provided an answer Jordan found mostly adequate, although “a little vague.”

Jordan plans to vote for Clinton. But he says turning out the black vote the way Obama did is going to be “tough for her.” It’s hard, he said, for whites to talk about racial justice issues in a way that blacks find genuine. “There are gaffes,” he said.

Halper reported from Fort Lauderdale and Lee from Los Angeles. Staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report from Nashua, N.H.


Twitter: @evanhalper and @kurtisalee