The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DNC and RNC won’t add a debate, but give their blessings to Black Lives Matter presidential town hall

A “Black Lives Matter” protest in Baltimore in December (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

This post has been updated

Both major political parties have given their blessing to two of the most prominent activist groups associated with the Black Lives Matter protest movement — the #BlackLivesMatter network and Campaign Zero — to host a presidential town hall focused on issues of racial justice.

Activists had called on the Democratic National Committee to add an additional presidential debate to its schedule, however both the DNC and the Republican National Committee have said they will not alter their formal debate schedule. Instead, both parties have said they would support the activists hosting a townhall or forum -- which would not be a formal debate and the 2016 candidates could participate without fear of repercussion from their parties.

In letters addressed to leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter network and prominent activist DeRay Mckesson, the DNC invited the activist groups to coordinate and host a presidential town hall similar to those currently being planned by some state-level Democratic parties and some liberal groups including

'We believe that your organization would be an ideal host for a presidential candidate forum — where all of the Democratic candidates can showcase their ideas and policy positions that will expand opportunity for all, strengthen the middle class and address racism in America," wrote Amy K. Dacey, chief executive officer of the DNC, in the letters which were obtained by The Post. "The DNC would be happy to help promote the event."

In a statement issued Thursday, the RNC noted that while its official debate schedule has long been finalized, about 30 presidential forums like the one Mckesson is proposing have been previously announced.

"We continue to encourage our candidates to speak with all voters when given the opportunity," said Orlando Watson, a spokesman for the RNC. "This presidential candidate forum, like Senator Tim Scott’s town halls, is such an opportunity."

The statements of support from the DNC and RNC of a Black Lives Matter townhall  come after organizers with the #BlackLivesMatter network — an activist collective with the same name often applied to the broader protest movement — called on the DNC to sanction an additional debate themed around issues of racial justice, which was only referenced once during the CNN presidential debate in Las Vegas earlier this month.

[Why Hillary Clinton and her rivals are struggling to grasp Black Lives Matter]

In an interview on Wednesday, Black Lives Matter organizer Elle Hearns said the umbrella group had yet to decide if it would proceed with an attempt to host a town hall, and said that she was still personally disappointed that the DNC will not sanction an additional debate.

"Their response to our request is unsatisfactory,' Hearns said, and added that it is irresponsible for the Democratic National Committee to host so few debates. "Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be more mindful of her responsibility not only to the DNC, but to the American people."

Mckesson, however, said he has been in talks with DNC and RNC officials to coordinate a presidential town hall including all of the candidates of both major parties.

Activists, many of whom were politically unaffiliated prior to the current protest movement, continue to grapple with how to best influence the ongoing presidential campaign. While many of the most prominent activists and organizers have gained national followings, and most of the leading presidential campaigns -- especially in the Democratic field -- have worked to ensure they remain in the movement's good graces.

[Black Lives Matter movement finds influencing 2016 contest a challenge]

In a letter McKesson sent to DNC officials earlier this week, Mckesson noted the national conversation about race and criminal justice prompted in large part by the protests following the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"The issues of police violence, state violence, mass incarceration, and the impact of systematic inequity have been at the forefront of these conversations and they should also be centered during the 2016 Presidential Campaign," Mckesson wrote. "We have an opportunity to create space for a robust and transformational conversation about a set of issues that are key to millions of voters."

In an interview on Wednesday, Mckesson said he hopes to secure commitments from all current presidential candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — and that he has begun reaching out to potential venues and corporate partners. Mckesson said he has reached out to contacts at Twitter, the social network on which he is one of the most prominent users, to gauge their interest in co-hosting the town hall.

"We want to bring together all of the candidates, not focused on either political party, to have a conversation centered on race and criminal justice," Mckesson said.

An official at Twitter confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the company is currently discussing the possibility of working with Mckesson on hosting a presidential townhall.

Top Twitter executives have taken pride in the fact that the platform is credited as one of the driving factors in the growth of the protest movement. Earlier on Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey mentioned specifically mentioned the spread of the Black Lives Matter hashtag on Twitter.

"Twitter stands for speaking truth to power, and we see this every single day around the world," Dorsey said during a speech at the company's 'Flight' conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. "Most recently, with the community and hashtag #BlackLivesMatter."

[Elizabeth Warren just gave the speech that Black Lives Matter activists have been waiting for]

The activists' response highlights differing tactics of two of the many factions of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protest movement. Activists with the #BlackLivesMatter umbrella group, which has dozens of chapters, have been among those most often picketing and interrupting candidates on the stump. Mckesson and his colleagues at Campaign Zero, a group that is not formally affiliated with  the #BlackLivesMatter network, have opted instead for sit-down meetings with many of the candidates, and earlier this year released a set of detailed proposals with regard to policing policy.

Brittany Packnett, another organizer with Campaign Zero and a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, called the prospect of a townhall exciting, in part because it would allow activists groups more flexibility and creativity to press candidates on the issues than a highly-regulated debate would.

"The lessons of history are clear, and instructive for us right now. It is both protest and policy work that will get us the win, and we need every single possible strategy at our disposal in order to see real change," Packnett said. "So I think we have an opportunity to be creative here in how we engage presidential candidates in the same way that our movement has been creative in how we have protested and created peaceful but necessary disruption around the country."

The number of DNC debates during the current presidential race has been a hotly-contested issue, with several of the candidates as well as other prominent Democrats and liberal activists requesting the DNC to add more forums to its schedule.

"Just like in 2004 and 2008, the DNC plans to sanction six debates and is facilitating a fair, structured, and reasonable process for and on behalf of all our candidates so they can present their case to the American people," Dacey wrote in the letter to the #BlackLivesMatter network.