Black Lives Matter Activists Meet With Bernie Sanders To Make Sure He's On Board

“I can say Bernie Sanders was very open to being pushed,” one of the attendees said.

09/16/2015 05:36 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with Black Lives Matter activists on Wednesday to discuss racial justice and policing reforms.

Attendees said the Vermont senator was candid during the meeting and "open to being pushed." But they also expressed concerns that his role as an elected official in an overwhelmingly white state may make him out of touch with the concerns of black voters.

The Black Lives Matter movement has taken on an influential role in the 2016 election. At campaign events, activists have pressured candidates to address racial inequality, including cutting a Sanders speech short in Seattle in August. Later that month, prominent members of Black Lives Matter released a comprehensive platform called Campaign Zero, which endorsed law enforcement reforms such as the use of body cameras and police demilitarization. 

Sanders on Wednesday met with a number of prominent Black Lives Matter activists, including DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Samuel Sinyangwe and Brittany Packnett, all of whom are on the Campaign Zero planning team and are affiliated with the group We the Protesters. Many of the activists rose to prominence during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last August after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

During the hourlong meeting, activists spoke with Sanders about issues on Campaign Zero's agenda, Packnett said, including "what kind of efforts he would be willing to pursue to bring an end to institutionalized, systemic racism."

Elzie said that the senator's “answers to our questions around race, racism, systematic oppression in America as it relates to black people in this country weren't perfect" and that she had not expected them to be.

“I can say Bernie Sanders was very open to being pushed,” Elzie added. She pointed out that while Sanders needs the black vote, it's unclear whether he’d be as eager to listen to the black community after being elected.

“I also made it very clear that he has not won over a large demographic of black people in this country no matter how progressive he seems and that his policy platform, that his past history of dealing with black people, from his place of power in VT is also a concern in our community," she continued.

Sanders said in a statement to The Huffington Post that "at a time when the United States has more people in jail, disproportionately black and brown, than any other country, when an alarming number of unarmed African-Americans die in police custody and when 51 percent of black youth are unemployed or underemployed then clearly we have a very serious problem."

"I look forward to a continuing dialogue with Campaign Zero and other voices from communities of color to address deeply entrenched racial and economic problems in our country," the senator continued.

Interactions between Sanders and Black Lives Matter advocates have not always gone smoothly. After the Seattle incident, Sanders released a statement saying he was "disappointed" that the rally had been disrupted. The campaign's African-American outreach director sent a note to activists apologizing that the campaign had taken so long to "officially reach out," but Sanders later said on "Meet the Press" that such an apology had not been necessary. 

But he has since sought to improve the relationship, releasing a racial justice platform last month that won praise from some activists, and hiring Symone Sanders, a Black Lives Matter supporter who is of no relation to the senator, as his campaign's national press secretary.

Sinyangwe discussed Wednesday's meeting on Twitter, saying Sanders “seems to be willing to learn, to better understand how to directly confront and address past and present racial inequities.” 

Mckesson said on Twitter that the meeting “covered a lot of ground” and noted that his group met with members of Sanders' staff afterwards. 

"I think that he's becoming a bit more open," Packnett said, but acknowledged that "I came out of the meeting still thinking about where I will put my vote and not yet having an answer."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s policy director spoke with Mckesson and Packnett last month to discuss police reform and criminal justice. Mckesson called the discussion an “opportunity to redefine how presidential campaigns engage with black communities and prioritize black life." Clinton herself met with Black Lives Matter activists shortly after, but the discussion was characterized as tense.

"Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws," she told the activists.

Republican presidential contenders have taken a less conciliatory approach. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be "appalled" by the movement, while real estate mogul Donald Trump said he would never let activists take his microphone. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign insisted that he met with Black Lives Matter advocates in August, but attendees told HuffPost that the claim was misleading. In fact, Bush met with a local elected official, a staffer from an anti-poverty organization and a Republican lobbyist.

CONVERSATIONS