Protesters dis­rupt con­fer­ence fea­tur­ing O’Malley, San­ders

At pro­gres­sive fo­rum, ac­tivists call at­ten­tion to plight of blacks in U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JOHN WAG­NER john.wag­ner@wash­ James Hohmann con­trib­uted to this re­port.

phoenix — A fo­rum fea­tur­ing two of the most lib­eral can­di­dates for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion was dis­rupted and taken over Satur­day by lib­eral ac­tivists seek­ing to show­case their con­cerns for the plight of African Amer­i­cans.

For­mer Mary­land gover­nor Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) made back-to-back ap­pear­ances in a pres­i­den­tial town hall that was part of the four-day Net­roots Na­tion con­fer­ence here, an an­nual gath­er­ing of 3,000 pro­gres­sive ac­tivists that Demo­cratic front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton elected to skip.

Shortly into O’Malley’s al­lot­ted time, his dis­cus­sion with a mod­er­a­tor was dis­rupted by more than 100 protesters that in­cluded mem­bers of Black Lives Mat­ter, a group formed af­ter teenager Trayvon Martin’s shoot­ing in Florida, and the Black Al­liance for Just Immigration.

As chant­ing protesters streamed to the front of the room, O’Malley looked stunned at first and then started clap­ping along.

Close to 10 min­utes later, lead­ers of the protest were handed mi­cro­phones and rat­tled off a num­ber of their con­cerns, in­clud­ing deaths of African Amer­i­cans in po­lice cus­tody, and de­manded spe­cific so­lu­tions from O’Malley.

“It’s not like we like shut­ting s--down, but we have to,” Pa­trisse Cul­lors, co-founder of Black Lives Mat­ters, told the crowd, say­ing the group’s is­sues were an emer­gency.

The protest, how­ever, did not ap­pear aimed at O’Malley. The protesters re­mained as San­ders ap­peared on stage, and he took a less pa­tient ap­proach.

“Whoa, whoa, letme talk about what I came to talk about for a minute,” the sen­a­tor said be­fore launch­ing into a riff on in­come in­equal­ity and steps to ad­dress it.

The Ver­mont sen­a­tor faced chants and heck­ling as well, but San­ders con­tin­ued talk­ing. Asked what he had done in the Se­nate to ben­e­fit black Amer­i­cans, he started to talk about the 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act.

“We can’t af­ford that!” heck­led Elle Hearns, a 28-year-old Ohiobased co­or­di­na­tor for the LGBT rights group Get Equal.

O’Malley made sev­eral starts at ad­dress­ing the is­sues raised but was in­ter­rupted.

“I think that all of us as Amer­i­cans have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to rec­og­nize the pain and grief through­out our coun­try from all of the lives that have been lost to vi­o­lence, whether that’s vi­o­lence at the hands of po­lice, whether that’s vi­o­lence at the hands of civil­ians,” he said.

“Stop try­ing to gen­er­al­ize this s---!” yelled Ash­ley Yates, a 30year-old ac­tivist from Oak­land, Calif.

Later, O’Malley drew boos as he said: “Black lives mat­ter. White lives mat­ter. All lives mat­ter.”

Af­ter his ap­pear­ance, O’Malley ad­dressed those com­ments on a ra­dio show be­ing recorded at the con­ven­tion hall.

“When I said those other two phrases, I meant no dis­re­spect,” O’Malley told the online ra­dio show “This Week in Black­ness.” “I did not mean to be in­sen­si­tive in any­way.”

As Bal­ti­more’s mayor, O’Malley faced crit­i­cism of the city’s ag­gres­sive polic­ing poli­cies, a topic that mod­er­a­tor Jose An­to­nio Var­gas ques­tioned him about at the out­set. ( Var­gas, a jour­nal­ist, film­maker and ac­tivist who is an im­mi­grant in the coun­try il­le­gally, pre­vi­ously worked as a re­porter for The Washington Post.)

San­ders made sev­eral com­ments ad­dress­ing the protesters’ con­cerns, in­clud­ing: “In my view, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to in­vest in jobs and ed­u­ca­tion, not in jails and in in­car­cer­a­tion.”

Var­gas de­cided to cut the fo­rum about 15 min­utes short of its al­lot­ted time.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we have to wrap it up,” he said.

“Okay, good,” San­ders replied, be­fore ris­ing to exit.

Fol­low­ing the event, Mary Rick­les, a spokes­woman for Net­roots Na­tion, said: “We wish the can­di­dates had more time to re­spond to the is­sues. What hap­pened to­day is re­flec­tive of an ur­gent mo­ment that Amer­ica is fac­ing to­day.”

The crowd was largely sym­pa­thetic to the protesters, but many said af­ter­ward that they wish they could have heard more from the can­di­dates.

“I didn’t dis­agree with the mes­sage,” said El­iz­a­beth Arledge, 50, of Alexandria, Va., an ac­tivist who fo­cuses on civil jus­tice. “I was very sup­port­ive of it, and I also wanted the pro­gram to go on.”

Lu­cas Her­non, 30, of Las Cruces, N.M., an un­de­cided voter, said he thought O’Malley han­dled the sit­u­a­tion well ex­cept for when he said white lives also mat­ter. “As a white per­son, we don’t need to be re­minded of that,” Her­non said.

Some in the au­di­ence sug­gested there could be fall­out from the event for San­ders, whose chal­lenges in­clude ex­pand­ing his ap­peal be­yond lib­eral white vot­ers.

Bethany Winkels, a 30-year-old ac­tivist from Min­neapo­lis, said it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal for San­ders to call for more grass-roots or­ga­niz­ing in one breath and then sound dis­mis­sive of the protesters in the next.

“It’s shame­ful, and he needs to do bet­ter,” Winkels said.

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