Cleveland (CNN)They could be a dream demographic for Democratic presidential contenders: young, diverse political activists drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Hillary Clinton and her liberal challengers Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley are failing to galvanize this group — whose support could be important if Democrats want to keep the White House in 2016 — even as they try to embrace its cause and rhetoric.
The challenge was on full display here recently where hundreds of grass-roots activists gathered for a three-day convention called the Movement for Black Lives. Few seemed impressed with the Democratic field. Some saw Clinton as too conservative, while others said Sanders doesn’t understand race. O’Malley appeared to be barely on anyone’s mind.
“I’m unenthused by all of the candidates,” said Breanna Champion, 22.
“Is it the white millionaires in this party or is it the white millionaires in that party that we are supposed to vote for?” asked Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who was among a group gathered in a conference room on the Cleveland State University campus to discuss 2016.
Two years after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death sparked a national conversation on race, Black Lives Matter is an umbrella movement for a much broader agenda that addresses everything from education and criminal justice reform to reparations. But the political establishment is struggling to keep up as even Democratic candidates who identify as progressive stumble when addressing the thorny issues surrounding race.
There will be another opportunity for politicians from both parties to connect with African-Americans on Friday when they address the National Urban League Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The top three Democratic candidates along with GOP presidential hopefuls Ben Carson and Jeb Bush will be there.
Bush, who signed Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense measure into law, will likely face scrutiny at the event.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, addressed the group on Wednesday, vowing that his party woudn’t cede the black vote and embracing the language of black lives matter activists.
“We can’t be satisfied with just getting rid of the symbols of discrimination and inequality,” he said, referencing the removal of the Confederate Flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina. “We can’t be satisfied until we have ended injustice in our schools, in our job market, and in our legal system because black lives matter. Not just when a tragedy makes the news, all the time.”
But the trouble for Democrats in particular is that even as they echo the language of the movement — sometimes specifically saying “black lives matter” — they’re doing so in ways that get lost in the news cycle or are seen by some activists as awkward or dismissive.
In June, Clinton faced backlash for saying “all lives matter,” even though she was quoting her late mother. She declared in December, “Yes, black lives matter,” and has said the phrase should be a guiding principle.
Sanders, meanwhile, was gruff and taken aback recently when black activists crashed his speech at the progressive Netroots Nation conference. He later pushed back on the suggestion he was dismissive of the concerns of Black Lives Matter activists, saying his populist economic approach would lift people of all races, particularly African-Americans.
O’Malley, a former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor whose police policies are under scrutiny, also bungled his Netroots Nation appearance, even though he had met with activists days before his appearance. He initially responded to protesters by saying, “White lives matter, all lives matter.”
He later apologized, adding he didn’t mean to offend. Aides said he has reached out to activists as well as Charles Ogletree, a prominent Harvard law professor and mentor to President Barack Obama. Next week he heads to South Carolina, where Walter Scott was gunned down by a police officer and a historic black church was the scene of a massacre, to meet with black leaders.
Even Obama, who has become much more vocal on matters of race during his second term, has stopped short of specifically saying black lives matter. In a speech last month to the NAACP, he instead invoked cities where protests erupted in the wake of cases involving police and unarmed African-Americans.
“Places like West Philly, or West Baltimore, or Ferguson, Missouri — they’re part of America, too. They’re not separate. They’re part of America like anywhere else. The kids there are American kids, just like your kids and my kids,” he said. “So we’ve got to make sure boys and girls in those communities are loved and cherished and supported and nurtured and invested in. And we have to have the same standards for those children as we have for our own children.”
Tad Devine, a Sanders aide, acknowledged that embracing a specific rhetorical framing — and by extension a movement — carries risks. He recalled Obama’s awkward dance with the Occupy Wall Street protesters in the run-up to his 2012 re-election.
“Circumstances are happening in real time and it creates a caldron so you have to be careful,” said Devine, who also worked on Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. “The dangerous side is if it is used to divide people on the basis of race. It’s a strategy that has worked.”
Republicans have resisted using the language of the movement, arguing it implies black lives matter more than the lives of people of other races.
Some Americans “hear: Here we are, yes, we have this political motivation that we’re separating out this one category of Americans and saying they matter more than everybody else,” Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s former GOP attorney general, said recently on CNN’s “State of the Union With Jake Tapper” when asked why some voters might resent the phrasing. “That’s why you have the retort, no, all lives matter.”
Bush, who has signaled he wants to broaden the GOP tent, has largely dismissed the phrase and suggested that O’Malley was captive to political correctness when he apologized for saying white lives also matter.
“I know in the political context it’s a slogan, and should he have apologized? No,” he said. “If he believes that white lives matter, which I hope he does, then he shouldn’t apologize to a group that seemed to disagree with it.”
The suggestion that Black Lives Matter activists somehow devalue white lives highlights how tricky and potentially divisive the language and the movement could become during election season.
“Black Lives Matter has an implicit too at the end of it,” Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic South Carolina state representative who is now a CNN contributor, said on “State of the Union.” “It speaks to a very, very specific pain. It’s more than a slogan. … You have African-Americans who literally do not get the benefit of their humanity. And that’s a problem.”
A recent Gallup poll shows that race relations are among the top concerns for African-Americans, tied with the economy as the most pressing issue.
What’s clear is that Democrats and the GOP will be pressed on both issues, from a vocal movement that is disappointed with both parties.
Listing the names of African-Americans killed by police, Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, an organization in Chicago that focuses on issues affecting black youth, wondered where Democrats who are trying to present themselves as allies have been in the past.
“Where was Hillary Clinton? Where was Bernie Sanders? Where were any number of candidates who are running on either side of the aisle,” Carruthers said. “I’m deeply skeptical of any politician who will try to verbalize black lives matters, and not back it up with action.”