Republicans 'cautious' about confronting Black Lives Matter on campaign trail

... and they’re not alone. Democrats agree criminal justice reform is needed but the movement is proving challenging to all candidates for the White House

There are few areas of bipartisan consensus in the 2016 presidential election. Criminal justice has emerged as one. Republicans and Democrats are agreed: reform needs to happen.

A landmark US Senate deal on criminal justice, which seeks to overhaul federal sentencing laws, could soon get a vote.

However, as the Black Lives Matter movement seeks a greater role in shaping the conversation around a justice system that disproportionately affects African Americans, candidates are reacting in decidedly different ways on the campaign trail.

How each party responds both rhetorically and substantively to such activists, who have taken to the streets across the country in protest of police brutality and racial profiling, could shape turnout among black voters in November next year.

Comments from Chris Christie in Iowa on Saturday illustrated the struggle among Republicans. Echoing a controversial statement he has made before, the New Jersey governor told caucus-goers in the early voting state many such activists “advocate for the murder of police officers”.

A day earlier, the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters during a speech on criminal justice in Atlanta. A largely African American crowd rallied to her defense, however, and cheered new proposals to ban racial profiling by law enforcement and to end the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

Christie remains a long shot for the Republican nomination, but his words – similar to comments made by the Texas senator Ted Cruz – reflect what is driving the reaction to Black Lives Matter among conservatives and forcing candidates like Marco Rubio, rising as an increasingly viable opponent to Clinton, to tread a fine line on issues of policing and race.

In an interview with Fox News last Tuesday, Rubio was prodded by host Bill O’Reilly to explain the rise in violent crime across some parts of the country amid a debate over the so-called “Ferguson effect” – that police officers were pulling back from their duties out of fear of being caught using excessive force.

Rubio attributed the violence to a “societal” issue and spoke of the importance of family values. But O’Reilly focused his ire on Black Lives Matter protesters, who he said were inciting violence against police. Rubio declined to go after the movement itself, saying grievances among African American males and other minorities about feeling disproportionately targeted by police were “a legitimate issue”.

He was nonetheless pressed further by O’Reilly on whether Black Lives Matter and specifically the president, Barack Obama – who has defended the group – were to blame for the creation of a hostile environment for law enforcement. Rubio responded by criticizing the White House and the media for, he said, paying less attention to the deaths of police officers than those of civilians.

“The overwhelming and vast majority of law enforcement officers in this country are just trying to do their jobs,” Rubio said. “They’re the only things standing between my family and danger. They’re the first people we call when we get in trouble.

“And it is troubling that there are groups and rhetoric out there now that is encouraging people to demonize law enforcement, to target law enforcement or in some cases, quite frankly, to misrepresent what law enforcement is trying to do.”

But Rubio, who has been more measured in his response to relations between police and minorities, maintained a delicate balance by noting that some of the high-profile killings of unarmed, black men by police “raise strong questions” about whether the officer involved did the right thing.

The exchange underscored the complexities associated with discussions of race and policing among Republican presidential candidates. Many in the conservative media, along with candidates such as Christie and Cruz, have sought to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement by seizing on a handful of examples in which protesters have used controversial rhetoric.

Other Republican candidates have not drawn explicit connections between the movement’s organizers and violence against police, but they have stumbled all the while on whether or not to accept its moniker.

In August, shortly after the Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley apologized for telling Black Lives Matter protesters “all lives matter”, the former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has said he would like to reach electoral areas Republicans traditionally have not, struggled to grasp the movement’s objectives.

“I know in the political context it’s a slogan,” Bush said, “and should he have apologized? No. If he believes that white lives matter, which I hope he does, then he shouldn’t apologize to a group that seemed to disagree with it.”

The Kentucky senator Rand Paul, arguably the only Republican presidential candidate who has made criminal justice a solid policy platform, even suggested the Black Lives Matter movement change its name to “Innocent Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”.

“Frankly, I think a lot of poor people in our country, and many African Americans, are trapped in this war on drugs, and I want to change it,” Paul told Fox News in August. “But commandeering the microphone and bullying people and pushing people out of the way ... isn’t a way to get their message across.”

The Black Lives Matter movement was born after the shooting death in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a self-appointed neighborhood watch guard in Florida. It expanded nationwide following a series of high-profile killings by police of unarmed, black men – such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

O’Reilly, of Fox, said the group had become “leaders” of a different kind of movement – to demonize police.

Hillary Clinton Black Lives Matter
Protesters chanting ‘black lives matter’ interrupt Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Atlanta. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Democrats and Republicans have thrown their support behind criminal justice reforms such as lowering mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and lowering incarceration rates more broadly. But as Republicans grapple with how to respond to groups like Black Lives Matter, they risk inflicting the kind of harm that in 2012 earned GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney just 6% of the African American vote.

Following that election, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report that turned into a brutal 97-page autopsy, a call for the party to improve its outreach to minorities. Three years later, the party’s inability to make such inroads is reflected in how some Black Lives Matter activists view potential conversations with Republican presidential contenders.

“It would be almost a waste of our time,” said Elle Lucier, co-founder of a grassroots organization called #ItsBiggerThanYou, under the Black Lives Matter banner. “I’m not surprised that conservatives are using degrading language or demeaning the movement.

“That’s why we are having these conversations and we are forcing this dialogue with Democrats: because we’d have a chance to actually reach them.”

It was in Lucier’s hometown, Atlanta, that Clinton made her latest push on criminal justice, overshadowed by the protest but well received by a mostly African American crowd of more than 2,000.

“Race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind,” Clinton said. “Racial profiling is wrong, demanding, doesn’t keep us safe or help solve crimes. It’s time to put that practice behind us.”

The former secretary of state unveiled three new plans, as part of a larger criminal justice platform.

She called for legislation that would ban racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement, and proposed eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, so that those found in possession of either substance would receive the same sentence. Clinton also vowed to use executive action to “ban the box” – to prevent the federal government and contractors from asking questions about criminal history in the early stages of an application process.

The announcements followed other steps taken while courting African American voters. The first public speech of her campaign was on criminal justice reform, and in that forum she endorsed body cameras for police and called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration”.

“That was an electrifying moment for a presidential candidate of her stature to say, this is what I want to talk about first,” said Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “She’s elevated this topic to the forefront of her campaign strategy.”

Travis remembers a different time, having served as director of the National Institute of Justice in the administration of Bill Clinton. The former president signed a comprehensive tough-on-crime bill in 1994 he has since acknowledged worsened America’s mass incarceration problem.

The political tides have shifted dramatically since, and Hillary Clinton has chosen criminal justice as a signature issue. Along with voting rights, it has been the focus of several trips she has made to the south, including to South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana. There has been additional outreach to African American political leaders, such as the influential Congressional Black Caucus.

Clinton’s main Democratic rival, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has his own criminal justice proposals, such as ending the federal prohibition on marijuana and abolishing the death penalty – both of which disproportionately impact African Americans. Last month, Clinton and Sanders met separately with Black Lives Matter leaders.

Of the 15 Republican presidential candidates, only Rubio and Ben Carson have been approached by Black Lives Matter for a conversation. The group reached out to Rubio after a separate Fox News interview in August, in which the senator spoke more forcefully of the targeting of minorities in the criminal justice system and cited a friend of his who been stopped by police eight to nine times in just 18 months.

“It is a fact that in the African American community around this country there has been, for a number of years now, a growing resentment toward the way law enforcement and the criminal justice system interacts with the community,” Rubio said in that interview.

“It is particularly endemic among young African American males, that in some communities in this country have a much higher chance of interacting with criminal justice than higher education. We do need to face this. It is a serious problem in this country.”

DeRay Mckesson, a leading Black Lives Matter activist, said the group was seeking a meeting with Rubio because his comments were “seemingly nuanced in a way that showed his understanding of these issues”.

“We’d love to talk to him more to gain an understanding of how he would approach racial equity and justice as president,” he added.

“Whoever will be the next president of the United States will need to address issues of race and equity. So we expect all of the candidates to think through these issues in their platform in a nuanced and balanced way.”

A spokeswoman for Rubio’s campaign did not comment on whether he planned to accept the invitation.

Travis said it was unlikely the issue would be a priority among Republicans during their primary, which overwhelmingly comprises white voters.

“The posture of candidates in the primary is different from what it is in the general election,” he said. “But it’s notable Republicans have not used this as a wedge issue either.

“There are issues where there’s a broad leadership consensus in both parties that the country has gone off course in its use of prisons, mandatory minimums and drug policy.”

Indeed, the national discourse surrounding race and policing has precipitated at least some action on Capitol Hill. In late October, lawmakers reached a deal on a bipartisan proposal to reform the criminal justice system.

Senator Marco Rubio
Senator Marco Rubio has been treading carefully on issues of race and policing. Photograph: Brian Frank/Reuters

The compromise includes a comprehensive set of provisions aimed at lowering mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and limiting life sentences for certain repeat offenders. It would seek to provide judges with more discretion to override mandatory minimums, rather than impose a number.

Republican candidates such as Rubio, Cruz and Paul would be in a position to vote for the bill, unlike other candidates who can stick to addressing the issue as a hypothetical.

Cruz said he opposed the bill in its current version, arguing it would extend to violent criminals, as opposed to just nonviolent drug offenders, and could lead to the release of more than 7,000 prisoners.

Paul noticeably stayed out of the negotiations, despite having introduced legislation in the past to give judges more sentencing discretion and to restore voting rights for nonviolent ex-felons. Paul’s office did not return a request for comment when asked if he was backing the measure.

Asked by the Guardian at a campaign stop in Iowa last month if he would support the compromise, Rubio said he still needed to look at the details but was “generally supportive” of reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders.

“I most certainly am open to that,” Rubio said. “Now, I’m cautious about it, because I do think mandatory minimum sentences of violent offenders have helped reduce crime rates around the country over the last 20 years ... But again, these are non-violent offenders.”

A spokesman for Rubio’s Senate office said they were still reviewing the details of the bill.

Elle Lucier of #ItsBiggerThanYou said communities like hers would be watching all the candidates closely, regardless of their political affiliation.

“At the end of the day, rhetoric doesn’t save us,” she said. “It creates the sense of ease and feeling that we’re being heard and understood. But a lot of us are looking for action.”


Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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