There were more than 34,000 words uttered during the three-hour Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday night.
None of them were “black lives matter.”
For more than a year, the nation has been locked in a passionate discussion about race and policing — driven by the killing of unarmed black men and women by police officers. But, as underscored Wednesday night, the movement that has funneled thousands of protesters into American streets, prompted new scrutiny of law enforcement and forced Democratic presidential candidates into several stumbles on the trail, has yet to receive significant attention in the GOP race.
How to best influence the 2016 presidential contest remains a challenge for activists and organizers working under the Black Lives Matter banner — in part because different factions of the movement disagree starkly over the best way to do so.
Those tactical disagreements will be front and center this weekend during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual policy conference, which features an expansive list of panels with participants as diverse as protesters and policymakers who have risen to prominence during the current protest movement.
“The real goal is to drive the narrative around the presidential debate,” said Nick Mosby, the Baltimore City Council member who represents the neighborhood where riots erupted this spring after the death of Freddie Gray of an injury he suffered while in police custody. “And that’s really hard.”
Several protest groups have vowed to continue staging demonstrations at candidates’ public appearances, a tactic that has drawn significant criticism in political and protest circles. Other activists, including DeRay Mckesson — who is perhaps the nation’s most widely recognized protester linked to the movement — have focused on policy meetings, pressuring candidates to engage on the details of policing and criminal justice. On Wednesday, Mckesson was among activists who met separately with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, to discuss Campaign Zero, their policing and criminal justice policy platform.
“The movement have brought issues of police and criminal justice to the forefront in ways that we haven’t seen in decades,” Mckesson said. “All of the campaigns will continue to need to think deeply about the issues that the unrest has brought to the fore.”
And on Friday, a new, bipartisan group, comprising young, black lawmakers and public professionals will arrive in Washington to meet with the Democratic and Republican national committees with the hope of succeeding where they think the young activists have fallen short thus far: getting the GOP candidates to take policing reform seriously.
The Republican candidates are not the only ones under pressure. Some of the movement’s biggest headlines of the summer came when members interrupted Democratic candidates Sanders and Martin O’Malley during a liberal policy conference organized in Phoenix by the group Netroots Nation.
“Our group was pretty much solidified after the Netroots situation,” said Ashley Bell, who is one of two chairs of 20/20 Leaders of America, an alliance of 40 young, black elected officials and policymakers that is evenly composed of Democrats and Republicans.
But the disruptive protests were not an unqualified success. They drew criticism from many on both sides of the political aisle, causing some who want to see policing and criminal justice reform to worry that the protest movement would not be taken seriously by presidential candidates.
“There was a lot of concern that we needed to make sure the candidates had a venue and marketplace to talk about these issues,” said Bell, a Republican and former county commissioner in Hall County, Ga. “The next president might not be African American. If not, we need to make sure the next president understands the issues that affect black communities.”
Bell said his group has held preliminary policy talks with the presidential campaigns of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.). The group has also invited the candidates to a presidential forum in November at Allen University in South Carolina.
An RNC official confirmed Wednesday that during the meeting Friday, 20/20 will present policy proposals on policing and criminal justice that are being considered for inclusion in the Republican Party’s 2016 party platform.
“We definitely have a long way to go,” said Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, Calif., who is in Washington this week. “We have to get to that moment where all of the candidates are really discussing the issues at the forefront of the national headlines so we can have a candid conversation about race, education and economic opportunity.”
In two debates that stretched for a combined five hours, the candidates in the Republican presidential field were asked just one question about what some on the left consider a new civil rights movement.
“It was wildly disappointing for them to have a three-hour debate [Wednesday] and not once bring up these issues, which have completely altered the national conversation,” Mckesson said.
On Wednesday night, the only time the word “police” was uttered by a candidate was during a response by Paul about medical marijuana. The most memorable of just a handful of exchanges about criminal justice reform involved Jeb Bush’s apology to his mother for smoking marijuana 40 years ago.
“Our country is at a fork in the road,” said Chelsi Henry, a conservative columnist for Ebony magazine and a member of 20/20. “These issues have come up during presidential elections before. What makes it so unique this time around is that we want to see more than a talking point.”
That has been the message delivered consistently by Mckesson and the others who came to prominence as activists after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. That message was the focus of their sit-down with Sanders on Wednesday.
The activists who met with Sanders were Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Samuel Sinyangwe — the team behind Campaign Zero — as well as Erika Totten, a Washington-based activist and organizer, and Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, an unarmed black woman who was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in Chicago in 2012.
After that session, Mckesson, Elzie and Packnett went to the White House and met with Jarrett and Roy Austin Jr., the deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs, in a meeting that included Phillip Agnew, of the Dream Defenders, and Jamye Wooten, of Baltimore United for Change.
“We’ve seen broad engagement with Campaign Zero, at all levels of the politics,” Mckesson said. “I’m encouraged. And I’m hopeful that the conversation with the White House is a beginning and will result in tangible things that affect these issues. The conversation only matters if it informs practice that impacts people’s lives.”
Campaign Zero has earned the praise of prominent Democratic operatives and some activists, but it has also drawn the skepticism of some activists not involved in it — highlighting significant divisions among the young activists.
“There is no doubt in my mind that our country must be aggressive in addressing institutional racism and a broken criminal justice system,” Sanders said in a statement after his meeting with the activists. “I look forward to a continuing dialogue with Campaign Zero and other voices from communities of color to address deeply entrenched racial and economic problems in our country.”
Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, are aggressively courting black voters, who were crucial to the Obama coalition.
“It’s not going to be easy to get our votes,” Patrisse Cullors, another police-reform activist, said in a previous interview. “But if they’re feeling compelled to meet with the people who have been leading the Black Lives Matter movement, then things are headed in the right direction.”
Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.