Instead, the two top Democratic candidates have touted the endorsements of the families of unarmed African Americans who have been killed during encounters with law enforcement officers or white gunmen, who claimed they acted out of fear.
Last week, Bernie Sanders publicized the backing of Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. She pledged her support for the Vermont senator in an op-ed in The Washington Post, saying he is a leader "who understands our deaths as tragedies — not political talking points — and someone who will speak out against the wars being waged against our communities.
Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, endorsed Hillary Clinton two weeks ago in a statement posted to the candidate’s website. "With all the violence and injustice that’s upon us today, we need a candidate who can move us forward — that’s Hillary," Carr wrote.
Earlier this month, Clinton’s campaign touted the endorsement of Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager whose shooting death in 2012 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, the campaign emailed around a supportive op-ed by Lucia McBath, whose son Jordan Davis, 17, also was shot to death in 2012 by a white man who confronted Davis and his friends over the loud music playing in their car.
The Sanders campaign last week also called attention to an endorsement from Natalie Jackson, the attorney who represented Martin’s family. And the campaign held a news conference on Monday to announce the backing of South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg, who was the lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist shot to death last year by a white North Charleston police officer. Bamberg had initially endorsed Clinton.
Martin, Davis, Garner and Scott, along with other black people who have been similarly killed in recent years, are iconic figures in the current, millennials-driven movement against institutional racism. In most cases, the people who killed them were not charged or were acquitted, which adds to the sense of injustice on the part of their families and a black community that thinks the criminal justice system is racially biased.
Endorsements are standard fare in political campaigns, eagerly sought after by candidates even though their effectiveness in influencing voters is limited. Will the endorsements of the family members whose tragedies and struggles with the criminal justice system are at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement help influence African American voters, a key constituency in the Democratic Party?
Niambi Carter, a political science professor at Howard University, doesn’t think so. She suggested there was something discomfiting about the families of the victims being used by the campaigns to stump for votes.
“On the one hand, it does seem to be an end run around the really critical issues that Black Lives Matter groups and organizations are really asking the candidates to address,” she said. Then, choosing her words carefully because she said she doesn’t want to seem “crass or unfeeling” toward the victims’ relatives, Carter added: “These are not people we necessarily look to to set a political agenda. They are, unfortunately, part of our public conversation and our memory because of their tragedies, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them as arbiters of what black people writ large are asking or requesting of these candidates.”
During the summer and fall, some Black Lives Matter activists confronted presidential candidates, especially the three Democrats, at campaign events, demanding that they acknowledge racial disparities in the criminal justice system and calling on them to propose solutions. Other activists held sit-down sessions with the Democratic candidates to talk about reforms. Republican candidates have mostly ignored or rejected the arguments of Black Lives Matter as divisive and anti-police. A Black Lives Matter protester was beaten up by supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally, as the presidential candidate shouted from the podium to “get him the hell out of here.”
The Democrats — Sanders, Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — all have included criminal justice reform in their campaign platforms to varying degrees. But the prominent activists who lead various groups within the movement have not signaled their support for a candidate, with most saying they have no intention of endorsing anyone.
Patrisse Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, launched #BlackLivesMatter after Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted in a trial in which defense attorneys portrayed the teenager, who was walking through a townhouse community carrying a bag of candy and a can of iced tea, as menacing and responsible for his own death. “No. Our BLM network will not be endorsing a candidate,” Cullors said. Garza, in a separate response said: "While I will be voting in the impending election, I will not be endorsing any particular candidate."
DeRay McKesson, who emerged as a leader in the movement after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has met with the Democratic candidates to discuss a set of reforms called “Campaign Zero.” He said the group he is affiliated with, We The Protesters, is “not planning to endorse anyone at the moment.”
Charlene A. Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, which recently organized protests and challenged government officials in response to police shootings in Chicago and Minneapolis, said, “No. We are not planning to endorse any candidate.”
But some family members have chosen sides in the Democratic primary.
Erica Garner praised Sanders for adopting a racial justice platform and using the phrase “black lives matter” after activists disrupted him twice on the campaign trail in the summer. “He heard us and I believe he’ll continue to listen to us,” she wrote.
Her grandmother, Carr, writes on Clinton’s campaign website: “We’ve got to do something about the violence in our communities — especially gun violence — and the racial and economic injustice that’s connected to it. Hillary seems to be the only candidate right now who’s talking about how we can be strategic in trying to solve this problem.”
Fulton, in an op-ed published by CNN.com, said she supports Clinton because of her stance on gun control. "With so many of our children's lives on the line or taken, we simply can't afford to elect a Republican who refuses even to acknowledge the problem of senseless gun violence. The rising generation of our young people needs a president who will stand up to inaction from Republicans and indifference from the National Rifle Association," Fulton wrote. "I believe that person is Hillary Clinton."
In November, Clinton met with a group of mothers, including Fulton, whose children had been shot in encounters with police officers and civilians. The gathering was closed to reporters.
LaDavia Drane, director of African American outreach for Clinton, said she bumped into Fulton in the summer at LaGuardia Airport. Drane used to work for the Congressional Black Caucus and met Fulton during one of her many visits to Washington to press federal officials to look into her son’s death. Drane said they struck up a conversation and discovered that both Fulton and Clinton would be attending the annual meeting of the Urban League in Florida. Drane said that Fulton, referring to Clinton, said, “I need to talk to her. … We need her to be the president.”
Drane said she has a 20-month-old son, and she shudders “when I think about the possibility of him being taken away from me because of a senseless crime or police brutality." She said the campaign is giving the mothers a platform to continue to press their causes. “For me it’s doing what we can to lift up these stories so people can understand the need for our government to act,” she said.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Last week campaign aides emailed a link to an interview on Fusion with Jackson, one of the lawyers on the team that represented Fulton and Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, about why she is backing Sanders. Jackson said criminal justice reform requires a holistic approach to the problems plaguing the black community, and Sanders's focus on income inequality and upending establishment politics make sense. "The root of the problem is really the systematic oppression that a lot of black people are under like poverty, the lack of housing and good health care, good schools," Jackson said. "Bernie Sanders is real, and he’s discussing the things that we need. Especially black people."
Asked to comment on Fulton’s decision to endorse Clinton, Jackson said: “Hillary Rodham Clinton is clearly the second-best choice, so I don’t have a problem with it. If I wasn’t voting for Bernie, I would vote for Hillary. And if Bernie doesn’t win the primary, I’m voting for Hillary. So, I think we have to be careful with all of this Hillary-bashing.”