When I talk to other black voters about this year’s presidential election, some seem ready to dismiss it. Why, they ask, should we continue to put our faith in a system that continues to fail us? And why trust leaders who don’t care about our lives?
A year and a half ago, New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo barbarically choked my father, Eric Garner, on a Staten Island sidewalk in broad daylight. My father died that day. His death was ruled a homicide. Despite viral video footage of the incident, international media attention and widespread protests, our justice system failed to find Officer Pantaleo guilty of any crime. In fact, until a few weeks ago, the only person indicted in relation to the case was Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed it all.
As a daughter, I was devastated. As a citizen, I remain outraged — my father’s death was an absolute injustice, but not an uncommon one. By now, we know many of the other names all too well: Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd. But it’s only thanks to the tireless work of organizers and protesters, who take to the streets and disrupt business as usual, that we know their names at all.
That’s why I resent politicians who speak their names without confronting the underlying problem: a banned chokehold was used on my father, several officers on the scene let it happen, my father is dead and Pantaleo is still on NYPD’s payroll because black lives don’t necessarily matter to everyone in America.
If our lives really mattered, we’d have equal access to decent jobs, good schools and affordable housing. If our lives mattered in this country, we’d have equal access to clean air, clean water and real investment in black neighborhoods. If black lives mattered in America, those who routinely brutalize us wouldn’t be the ones paid, with our tax dollars, to keep us safe.
I trusted establishment Democrats who claimed to represent me, only to later watch them ignore and explain away the injustice of my father’s death. I trusted the system; then I watched as politicians on both sides of the aisle — from Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — disregard the will of the people they were elected to represent and abdicate their responsibility to protect them. I’ve watched as our system criminalizes blackness while allowing Wall Street to bilk the American people with impunity.
Even with my own heartbreak, when I demand justice, it’s never just for Eric Garner. It’s for my daughter; it’s for the next generation of African Americans. When I think about this presidential election, I’m not just thinking about the next four years — I’m thinking about the next 40.
Who will address the criminalization of our people? Who understands that we’re experiencing an economic crisis made worse by structural barriers to jobs and education? Who will bring us closer to real safety, freedom and power? Who has clearly shown us where they stand?
The answer is someone who started this work well before campaign season, who understands our deaths as tragedies — not political talking points — and someone who will speak out against the wars being waged against our communities. Not someone who only pays attention to our concerns when it’s time to collect our votes. Not someone who gives us bread crumbs and expects us to be full.
Black Americans — all Americans — need a leader with a record that speaks for itself. And to me, it’s clear. Of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders is our strongest ally.
When protesters challenged Sanders last summer, that relationship was tested. They publicly questioned whether the most progressive candidate in the field viewed racial justice as a nonnegotiable demand. The optics were messy, but he heard us. He prioritized a racial justice platform. He spoke out, in speeches and debates, about Sandra Bland and declared that black lives do matter. He heard us, and I believe he’ll continue to listen.
We aren’t the first generation of black Americans to rise up and demand our human right to life, and we won’t be the last. But I know a better world is possible. I know that once we come together, we are powerful beyond imagination. Sen. Sanders knows this too. He’s learning from us, working with us and respecting the power of we, the people, over the established political machine.
I remember another candidate who dared me to believe in hope and change. His opponents said he wasn’t ready for leadership. They said he couldn’t win. He said, “Yes, we can.” And we did.
I still believe we can. That’s why I endorse Bernie Sanders for president.