In a Sunday speech on racial inequality, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for broad policing reform — including de-escalation training and body cameras for all police officers — and likened the current Black Lives Matter movement to the civil rights movement that won black Americans the right to vote in the 1960s.
In the address, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post prior to her delivery, Warren draws direct parallels between the civil rights movement and the current anti-police-brutality movement, and it sought to link issues on economic inequality with systemic racism. She traces racial economic inequality, citing inequities in the housing system, as well as decrying restrictions to voting rights.
"Economic justice is not — and has never been — sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross on the front lawn. Admission to a school won’t prevent a beating on the sidewalk outside," Warren declared. "The tools of oppression were woven together, and the civil rights struggle was fought against that oppression wherever it was found — against violence, against the denial of voting rights and against economic injustice."
Warren's address, delivered at the Edward Kennedy Institute in Boston, was perhaps the most full-throated endorsement to date by a federal lawmaker for the ongoing protest movement, and it drew immediate praise from some of the most visible activists.
"Senator Warren's speech clearly and powerfully calls into question America's commitment to black lives by highlighting the role that structural racism has played and continues to play with regard to housing discrimination and voting rights," said DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist who said he hopes to meet with Warren to further discuss racial injustice. "And Warren, better than any political leader I've yet heard, understands the protests as a matter of life or death — that the American dream has been sustained by an intentional violence and that the uprisings have been the result of years of lived trauma."
Born out of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of Michael Brown last summer, the current protest movement has upended the efforts of Democratic presidential candidates to reach out to black voters. The three candidates have faced protests and interruptions at some of their campaign events. Both former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have met with some of the most visible activists, and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mckesson have agreed to meet soon.
The activists have called for a host of police reform measures, including body cameras, de-escalation training, special prosecutors in cases of police killings and a review of police union contracts.
"It is a tragedy when any American cannot trust those who have sworn to protect and serve," Warren said. "This pervasive and persistent distrust isn’t based on myths. It is grounded in the reality of unjustified violence."
But the topics of police violence and reform have yet to gain significant traction in the Republican primary. In a three-hour debate held earlier this month, the topics weren't brought up once — by either the moderators or candidates.
At times, Warren's speech read as if it could have been authored by the activists themselves — unyielding in its criticism of police violence and even invoking the phrase "hands up, don't shoot," a Ferguson rallying cry that conservatives have attacked as a lie because the Justice Department concluded that Michael Brown's hands were most likely not up in the air when he was shot and killed by Darren Wilson.
"We’ve seen sickening videos of unarmed, black Americans cut down by bullets, choked to death while gasping for air — their lives ended by those who are sworn to protect them. Peaceful, unarmed protesters have been beaten. Journalists have been jailed. And, in some cities, white vigilantes with weapons freely walk the streets," Warren said. "And it’s not just about law enforcement either. Just look to the terrorism this summer at Emanuel AME Church [in Charleston, S.C.]. We must be honest: 50 years after John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out, violence against African Americans has not disappeared."