News is a developing, living thing. As new information becomes available, previous insights can be shown to be wrong or at least incomplete. And that -- not some grand conspiracy against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his ardent supporters -- is what appears to be at the root of a fierce online battle about labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta's claim that she was shouted off a caucus stage with chants of "English only!"
On Saturday evening, as the Nevada caucuses drew to a close and Hillary Clinton was pronounced the winner, Huerta tweeted out a message indicating she had been barred from providing English-to-Spanish interpretation services at a Las Vegas caucus gathering in Harrah's Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Her observations were seconded in a tweet by the actress America Ferrera. Huerta and Ferrera are Clinton supporters and have made no attempt to hide that fact. And at the caucus event in question, Huerta was wearing a Clinton campaign T-shirt.
But in the hours that followed those tweets, Sanders supporters -- in many cases using the very language that had given rise to the idea that some Sanders voters are rowdy to outright rude -- set certain corners of the progressive Internet on fire. There were allegations of media bias and of deliberate attempts by the Clinton campaign and/or its supporters to besmirch the liberal credentials of Sanders voters or cast them as frothy-mouthed racists.
Fortunately, one Sanders supporter who was also present at that caucus gathering, actress Susan Sarandon, dispatched a tweet with her take on the night's events and a link to a lengthy video that captured a large portion of the caucus.
The plain truth about what happened is that no one seems to have described events quite accurately. Here's the video Sarandon shared in her tweet. The key section runs from about the 53:35 minute mark to around 56:46.
If you watch the Sarandon video, you will note that some of what is said and done is not audible or clear. But this much is:
- Around 53:35, there is a call from the back of the room for a Spanish interpreter, because some in the room do not speak English.
- There is a lot of cross talk, yelling, hissing and complaining around the 53:55 mark, as Huerta comes to the stage.
- There are people shouting, "She's with Hillary" and "No," around the 54:12 mark.
- At around 54:30, the permanent chair (the man speaking into the microphone) asks people to settle down, stop yelling and observe.
- Then, the permanent chair says at around the 55:21 mark, "We're going forward in English only."
- This statement was followed immediately by much applause and cheers of "Thank you." All of this together would indicate that the people pleased by the permanent chair's English-only decision were probably Sanders voters.
So there you have it. Right? Sanders voters can't be tarred and feathered for -- or even deemed guilty of -- Huerta's "English-only" chants claim. And Huerta appears to have misattributed the permanent chair's English-only decision to the raucous crowd.
But it's really not quite that simple.
First off, neither Huerta, the precinct's permanent chair nor the precinct captains for Clinton and Sanders could be reached for comment Sunday. Nevada Democratic Party officials, who oversee the caucuses, have yet to respond to requests for comment about events or procedure. Ferrera also declined to comment.
Second, this video really does not prove Huerta was guilty of the bias alleged by Sanders supporters; it's easy to see why she felt abused and upset after being shouted off the stage. Nor does it completely clear the Sanders supporters of all the allegations against them; some of the comments that are clearly audible in it amount to more than bad public behavior.
You see, there is still one big and serious problem, particularly at an event held by the party that claims to be an inclusive home for progressive voters. Nevada has one of the most diverse electorates in the nation, and 19 percent of the state's total population is foreign-born.
The Voting Rights Act requires that translated voting materials and language assistance or interpretation services be made available in areas with a certain concentration of voters with limited English proficiency. Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, is one of those places. It has been since the 2000 Census.
Voting is serious, and goodness knows that the caucus process is unique. So making sure that people fully understand what is going on at a given event and don't have the added burden of rapid personal interpretation is only common sense. Federal funds were provided to states to do so under the Help America Vote Act and to study the best methods. Nevada is not an exception.
The reasons for these laws are clear -- so clear that the applause and excitement as the English-only decision was made at the Harrah's Casino caucus Saturday perhaps did strike some people, including Huerta, as highly inappropriate.
Whether intended or not, those applauding effectively sanctioned a process that allowed qualified voters who do not speak English, or who are Spanish-dominant, limited insight and influence in the evening's events.
Some people at the caucus gathering may have been singularly focused on what they viewed as the risk of a Clinton supporter interpreting events for all Spanish-speakers in the room. But then, at the very least, they shouted an 80-plus-year-old woman off the stage for what they believed to be political bias. That is not a moment of which to be proud.
That the woman in question happened to be Dolores Huerta really does make matters worse. After all, Huerta is one of many people who personally waged activist war to create a multilingual voting system in the United States.