The first presidential Democratic town hall was held in Phoenix on Saturday at the Netroots Nation conference. It was hosted by undocumented activist Jose Antonio Vargas on the same stage where, a week before, Donald Trump made his infamous speech describing Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
“Does Donald Trump remember that his grandfather was a German immigrant?” Vargas asked to unanimous cheers from the crowd.
First onto the stage was former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley who called for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour.
While O’Malley was speaking 50 protesters, fists raised and clenched, streamed into the auditorium chanting, “What side are you on, my people, what side are you on?”
Tia Oso, executive director of the Black Immigrant Network walked on stage, shook hands with O’Malley and welcomed both him and Bernie Sanders to Arizona.
“Welcome to Arizona where a black trans-woman cannot walk down the street. Welcome to Arizona where Martin Luther King Day was repealed by a Republican governor,” she said.
Oso continued, “We want to talk about individuals that come from Cameroon, and Somalia, and Jamaica, and Central America. Are you going to talk about the Afro-Mexicans that are being caught at the border? Are you going to talk about Arizona and our state legislature, 75 percent of whom are members of ALEC?”
Oso then announced that her group was going to “hold space” and recite the names of persons of color who had died at the hands of police. Demonstrators recited both the names and individual wills drawn up by people should they die in police custody: “If I die in police custody, know that silence helped kill me, white supremacy helped kill me” they intoned.
A member of the Netroots Nation executive board came onto the stage to attempt to return to the program, but the protesters continued in virtual control with Vargas, the moderator, taking his cues from them.
The protesters made it clear that they wanted to hear how the candidates would address state and police violence against people of color. They were not satisfied, they said, with statements about broad economic policies and proposals.
At this point, convention goers, who had remained seated since the entry of the demonstrators began to insist loudly that O’Malley be allowed to speak but they too were rebuked. “We are only obligated to listen to the truth!,” was one remark.
Vargas, several times, attempted to walk the thin line between allowing O’Malley to speak and silencing the protesters and he wore the anxiety of that struggle on his face.
“Specifically, I believe that every police department in America should have to report in an open, transparent and timely way all police shootings, all discourtesy complaints, all brutality complaints,” he said.
When asked about civilian review boards, the governor stated that he believes all police departments should have one.
O’Malley said that he would be drafting an extensive criminal justice reform plan in the coming weeks and insisted that everyone in the room should ask all of the candidates the same questions he was being asked.
He then remarked on the importance of persistence and the fact that Maryland didn’t repeal the death penalty the first time they tried, or the second, but the third. Coming in for an ostensibly unifying closing statement O’Malley made another remark rejected by the protestors.
“Black lives matter, white lives matter…” O’Malley managed to say before being cut off by a renewed set of shouts and boos.
The former governor spent the rest of the day meeting with Black Lives Matter organizers and issued an apology for the “white lives matter” statement.
Vargas then called upon Sen. Bernie Sanders who said in acknowledging the work of the Netroots movement, “We live in a nation in which, to a significant degree, media is controlled by large multinational corporations. We live in a nation in which 95 percent of radio is right wing; we live in a nation where conservative Republicans own their own television channel. That’s why the work that you all do, in terms of blogging and the Internet, is extraordinarily important.”
During Sander’s call to raise the minimum wage, impatient chants of “Say her name!” arose once more from the demonstrators. “We want you to talk about black lives right now at this moment,” someone said.
During Sander’s remarks about the need to wrest control of the media from powerful multinational corporations shouts rang out about how none of what he was saying “matters if I’m dead” and that what he was saying did not address “white supremacy.”
“Black lives of course matter and I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights, but if you don’t want me to be here then that’s okay,” Sanders said.
After his prepared statements, Sanders went into investment in youth jobs, especially jobs for the African American population in which real unemployment hovers around 50 percent. The crowd responded to Sanders’ call to “transform the economics of our country to provide millions of decent jobs” with chants of “we are more than labor.”
“In my view, maybe just maybe, it’s time to invest in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration,” Sanders said after which a protester began to shout.
“If I die in police custody! Income inequality didn’t kill me!”
Vargas directed Sanders away from his economic solutions toward issues of policing.
“We need fundamental reform in police departments all over this country. What we need to move toward is community policing where police officers are from the community and not seen as an oppressive force,” Sanders said.
In a statement issued by Netroots shortly after the town hall event, Netroots stated, “Although 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.”
On Sunday Sanders sent out a tweet saying Black Lives Matter and the name of Sandra Bland. Then in Houston, near where Sandra Blanc died, he devoted an extended portion of his speech to addressing police violence and named a number of victims of police violence.
Moveon.org and other groups issued messages of support for the protests which put the issues of instutionalized racism front and center in the Democratic primaries.
Photo: Tia Oso (middle) speaks about Black Lives Matter. | BlogforArizona