Senator Bernie Sanders and Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas attempt to quell #BlackLivesMatter protesters at NN15.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas attempt to quell #BlackLivesMatter protesters at NN15.

Wow! What just happened?


I was sitting in a big hall with 100s of Bernie Sanders supporters waiting to film a Bernie love fest, but that’s not what happened at the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall with Democratic Presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley.

Governor Martin O'Malley answering #BlackLivesMatter protesters.

Governor Martin O’Malley answering #BlackLivesMatter protesters.

About 10 minutes into a softball Q&A session between undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and O’Malley, approximately 75 Black Lives Matter protesters marched to the front of the hall chanting and completely disrupted the event. O’Malley was talking about how he cleaned up the streets of Baltimore as mayor when the protest started. (Earlier in the event, O’Malley drew boos and stomping from the back of the room; many attendees obviously didn’t agree with his policing policies in Baltimore.)

Protesters chanted the names of black men and women who had been killed at the hands of police– some of whom had been killed in jail. Eventually, NN15 organizers and Vargas gained a bit of control, and O’Malley answered specific questions from the protesters and in the process screwed up by including “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” in his answer. (Ouch! Doesn’t he follow the conversations on the Internet? I was sitting at a table with fellow BfAZ blogger Bob Lord. We just looked at each other and shook our heads, “Oh, man. I can’t believe he said that!)

The event continued to spin out of control after Sanders took the stage.

White progressives are most likely disappointed by the NN15 town hall. They were prepared for a Bernie love fest with signs and enthusiasm. Instead of hearing Bernie’s campaign speech about economic revolution, they saw their candidate pivot to rhetoric instead of answering the Black Lives Matter protesters’ questions.

The protesters wanted to know what President Sanders (or President O’Malley) would do to stop “structural racism in the United States” and the unnecessary and immoral police killings of innocent, unarmed black men and women– in the streets and in the jails of the US.

Protesters chanted the names of the dead in a call and response style while Sanders and Vargas stood helpless on stage. At one point Sanders– visibly annoyed–said he was going to leave, and Vargas urged him to say. Sanders dismissed the protesters saying that he was “going to say what I came to say” before he addressed their concerns. (Video here.) Instead of talking about body cameras, discrimination in policing, white supremacy, militarization of local police forces, mass incarceration, or holding police more accountable, Sanders talked about Citizens United and money in politics. Citizens United is so far removed from the mean streets of America where innocent black people are dying. Sanders looked out of touch and dismissive when he continued with his campaign  stump speech instead of driectly addressing the protesters who were standing just a few feet in front of the stage. Sanders appeared rigid and less nimble in his responses than O’Malley.

Eventually, Sanders talked about police policies when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, but the damage was already done. The town hall ended 10 minutes early, as the protesters marched out chanting.

Sanders will speak again tonight at 7 p.m. in the Phoenix Convention Center. The event was moved from a smaller location to the convention center a few days ago. Thousands of people have RSVP’d for tonight’s event.