- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2015

All three Democrats seeking the White House next year fumbled when confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement this year, their campaigns acknowledged Thursday, but top aides to Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernard Sanders each argued that their candidates have learned valuable lessons from their mistakes.

At a Washington forum hosted by the progressive group Democratic Gain, representatives of each campaign detailed how the activist movement, which has grown in size and influence over the past two years, tripped up their candidates.

Black Lives Matter clearly has forced all three candidates to change their strategies when discussing race relations and appears to have influenced their policy platforms, with each increasingly focusing on criminal justice reform, police brutality, equal employment opportunities and other issues.

The campaigns made those changes after high-profile mistakes.

Mr. O'Malley and Mrs. Clinton were guilty of uttering, “All lives matter.” The Black Lives Matter movement considers that phrase to be tone-deaf and one that sugarcoats deep racial divisions in American society.

“My candidate did utter those words. … Immediately, he knew he had made a mistake,” said Yvette Lewis, co-chairwoman of O'Malley for President, recounting an incident over the summer when the former Maryland governor had a speech interrupted by activists and responded by saying, “All lives matter.”

“He apologized profusely,” Ms. Lewis said.

Mrs. Clinton used the same phrase earlier this year, but her campaign said that misstep should not tarnish her record or platform on race relations.

“She did not mean to be disrespectful. … She did say that. Does that one statement out of all the things she’s said in the course of 40 years in public service, does that negate all of those things? I don’t think so,” De-Ara Balenger, director of engagement for Hillary for America, said at the event.

Those mea culpas underscore the political power that Black Lives Matter may have in the presidential race, at least in the Democratic primary process. The movement, which has no hierarchy or designated leaders, traces its origins to 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

After it began as a Twitter hashtag, Black Lives Matter has expanded to include protests across the nation and has grown in intensity after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; and other racially charged incidents involving black men and law enforcement.

Over the summer, activists began to confront Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O'Malley at campaign events.

Mr. Sanders was especially affected by Black Lives Matter protesters at the Netroots Nation conference in July. Progressives widely panned the performance of the senator from Vermont, who threatened to leave the stage if the demonstrators didn’t stop interrupting his speech.

Shortly afterward, his campaign hired Symone Sanders, a black criminal justice reform activist, as its national press secretary. Ms. Sanders said Thursday that she was in discussions with the campaign before the Netroots incident but conceded that the campaign needed to improve its outreach to black voters.

On Aug. 7, less than three weeks after Netroots, the Sanders campaign released a detailed racial justice platform. The candidate also has held numerous meetings with Black Lives Matter activists.

“We’ve gone out and met people where they are,” said Ms. Sanders, no relation to the presidential candidate. “We really believe that, yes, black lives matter.”

Leaders in the Democratic Party are pushing Mr. Sanders, Mr. O'Malley and Mrs. Clinton to fully embrace the movement and its goals of equality.

“Maybe it’s not perfect, or maybe it’s not the right time, or maybe it’s not as clean as other questions at a debate or a forum, but the reality is what’s happening to our young people … is not clean, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t fit in a box, and it’s time for us to call attention to that,” said Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Maryland Democrat and 2016 senatorial candidate to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Ms. Edwards will face off against Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary this spring.

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