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How Bernie Sanders Has Built A Multi-Racial Anti-Austerity Campaign

Bernie Sanders won a huge upset in Michigan last week. It helped position him to potentially win some of the states with primaries this week, particularly Ohio, Missouri, and even Illinois. Results also showed that he had convinced a higher percentage of black voters to vote for him than in previous states. It showed the multi-racial coalition of people, who are supporting his campaign.

All too often, the establishment media, especially those with open bias toward supporting Hillary Clinton, promote the idea that the Sanders campaign is just a campaign for angry white men. The establishment media position it as a left-wing polar opposite of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This terrible equivalency is not only misguided and flawed, but it outright erases the extent to which the campaign has been able to make inroads with black millennials, black labor, black intellectuals, black cultural producers, and other parts of the black left.

What the Sanders campaign has been building is a powerful campaign for economic justice and human rights for poor and lower class Americans, which crosses all demographics particularly among young people. The mobilization of people around his campaign has the potential to be one of the greatest forces for countering the racist presidential campaign of Trump, as it interlocks with grassroots organizations which plan protests at his campaign rally, like what happened in Chicago.

Donna Murch, an associate professor at Rutgers University, is our guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast radio show this week. She reacts to activists who shut down Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago. She responds to Hillary Clinton’s statement on what happened, and how it relied upon coded language. We highlight the Clintons’ records with African Americans.

The discussion expands into a full assessment of the successes and struggles, which Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has had with black voters. Particular attention is paid to the patronage networks, which greatly benefit the Clintons. Also, we talk about the oft-raised question of whether Sanders knows how to talk to black voters as well as what it means to be mounting an insurgent campaign from within the Democratic Party.

The podcast episode is available for download on iTunes. For a link to the episode (and also to download the episode as well), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way by clicking on the player.

We also recorded a bonus discussion in the morning on March 12. Much happened between then and now, but we think you’ll still appreciate much of what we recorded. Listen here. Or, click on the below player:

Below is a partial transcript of the hour-long interview with Donna Murch.

GOSZTOLA: Let’s start with what is consuming the airwaves right now, as we record this interview—the reaction to the Trump rally. The student body at UIC, across all demographics—Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Arab Americans, Muslim people, resisted and contributed to the shut down. Grassroots activists came together to shut down Trump’s rally. There is this whole conversation right now about what the response should be to this kind of hate that Trump’s campaign has stood for. How do you think people should respond to Trump?

MURCH: I found out what happened last night because a friend of mine, who is an activist in Los Angeles, called me to tell me about these massive protests, kind of multi-racial—black, Mexican, Latino, Arab—protests happening. He was so excited about it. He’s coming out of an organizing community in Los Angeles that has been mobilized about Trump from the very beginning and was just utterly ecstatic to see the scale of push back against Trump and see a multi-racial coalition come around that.

The thing that I’m really struck by is Donald Trump chose to come visit the University of Illinois campus. I’ve been to organizing events. It’s one of the centers of the anti-state-sanctioned violence movement. So, if I had to make an analogy, it would be like a pro-military hawk coming to Berkeley in 1966. I think it was a provocation, but I think what is so exciting about it is to see this organized response of young people and coming around coalitions.

One frustration I feel in reading the New York Times and mainstream press in the United States is that they talk about Donald Trump with real sanitization. The common words that they use is to call him a populist or a nationalist. But what I always say when I’m interviewed is that Trump is a racist, and that his core candidacy was launched around calling Mexican rapists and saying that Muslims should wear ID badges and that is really what’s buoyed his campaign, combined with his status as reality TV star.

But the racism is the essence of the Trump campaign, and I’ve had debates with some of my colleagues, who actually call Trump a moderate. And they say that because he supports abortion rights, and at various points, he supported Medicare for All, universal care in the U.S. And it’s almost as if racism is utterly erased—not to use a pun. It’s like the third rail of American politics. It’s always there but no one speaks about it in the mainstream U.S. So, to see people carrying signs that say, “I Am Not a Rapist,” to see young people directly name Trump’s rhetoric and say it’s unacceptable is just beautiful and very exciting.

I’m also—and this is the larger thing we can talk about with the election—we’re seeing new types of coalitions being born and people meeting each other. One of the things I was very worried about with Trump was that the kind of right-wing white nationalism that he represents, that this is building a network and political culture, that it’s going to extend far beyond this election. And that is still a huge issue, but it’s nice to see these counter-protests and see ways particularly to create a unity around opposing racism. In this moment of the anti-state-sanctioned violence movement, I think it’s so important to see these different constituencies coming together, both black, Latino, and Arab but also the different kinds of oppression these communities are facing.

African Americans and Latinos are facing both criminalization but then also the whole state apparatus around immigration criminalization, criminalization of unsanctioned immigration, and then thinking about Arab migrants and Arab Americans, the whole infrastructure of the war on terror. This is a really exciting moment not just because it prevented Trump from speaking. That in itself is an amazing triumph, but the amazing part to me is the coalitions and networks that are being built as a result of it.

GOSZTOLA: We want to spend most of our time on the Democratic Party side of the election. We’ve got the statement that Hillary Clinton put out at the Donald Trump rally, and we’d like your reaction.

The divisive rhetoric we are seeing should be of grave concern to us all. We all have our differences, and we know many people across the country feel angry. We need to address that anger together. All of us, no matter what party we belong to or what views we hold, should not only say loudly and clearly that violence has no place in our politics, we should use our words and deeds to bring Americans together.

“Last year in Charleston, South Carolina an evil man walked into a church and murdered 9 people. The families of those victims came together and melted hearts in the statehouse and the Confederate flag came down. That should be the model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in our country.

MURCH: I think it’s really a statement that is deeply, first of all, disingenuous. This is a woman that said, about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, we came, we saw, he died. She has used the rhetoric of violence and imperial violence throughout her career as senator, as secretary of state, and now as a presidential candidate, including her threat to bomb Iran. So, to hear Hillary Clinton talk about violence in this way, it’s deeply hypocritical.

Interpreting what her statement means, it’s striking that she’s using violence as this term that she could be talking about the alleged violence of the protesters, as it was reported in the mainstream media, people who are trying to prevent Trump simply from speaking and kind of spreading his rhetoric of hate, or it could be interpreted as a kind of condemnation of Donald Trump. But she purposely keeps that ambiguous, this strategy of talking about the problems of violence, these are code words.

During the urban rebellions of the 1960s, the condemnation of violence was used all the time, and everyone understood what that meant. It’s a colorblind rhetoric about black people protesting, and I think Clinton is extending that more broadly. But that political rhetoric exists in a context of a political culture in which you condemn violence that I think voters of a particular age hear that and know what it means.

She puts in this section about Dylann Roof, who she doesn’t name, but by talking about the violence against African Americans and the sense of unity that’s brought about after that, she’s trying to knit together a coalition in which she wants to maintain the support of the black vote but she also wants to make a broad-based appeal, and I’ve written about this in detail, about the Clintons’ long history appealing to racist white working class voters.

I don’t know how else to put it. And we saw that rhetoric in 2008, with the discussion of Barack Obama’s candidacy as a fairy tale. So, for me, while that rhetoric has this kind of ambiguity to it, I actually don’t think it is. I think it is a very calculated attempt to throw bones to different constituencies that are really in tension and contradiction with one another.

KHALEK: While we’re on this discussion about Hillary Clinton—because I know we want to get to Bernie Sanders as well, you did write this article for The New Republic that you just referenced. It’s called, “The Clintons’ War on Drugs: When Black Lives Didn’t Matter.” That was published last month, and it’s a really good article. I encourage everyone to go read it.

In terms of the Clintons’ history with disenfranchising, black people being put behind bars and speaking to them in racially coded ways, and putting out racist messages and in terms of now and what she’s doing now—She’s traveling around the country. She’s recruited the mothers of black children, who’ve been killed by police or vigilantes to campaign for her. She’s really remade herself into this image of what you could call a social justice warrior against racism.

You see this, there is huge support obviously from black Americans, particularly in the south. And you talk about some of the patronage networks down in the south and how that helps the Clintons. So, can you address those things and the Clintons history and then juxtapose that with what we’re seeing now and why.

MURCH: You put it really well about Hillary Clinton reinventing herself as a social justice warrior. I thought that was brilliantly said, and she likes to use that language, strength and experience, and I talk about that in my book. To be honest, I find the Clintons to be absolutely paradoxical, and of course, I lived through the era in the 1990s, and I just graduated from college. It is a genuine surprise to me about how effectively Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have been able to allied with the policies they were responsible in the 1990s.

The frame for talking about this is the scale of African American support in the south, where you saw these huge margins of victories in states with either black majorities or very, very large portions of the electorate. Going back to the 1990s, Bill Clinton coming from Arkansas, from a white working class family, was deeply familiar with southern culture and southern mores and also was very comfortable in the presence of black people. And after the Reagan administration and then the Bush election when essentially Bush Sr. is elected on running an anti-crime platform—

So, Jonathan Simon has argued that he’s the first president to truly be elected on an anti-crime platform. It’s Lee Atwater’s demonization of Willie Horton, who was a convicted felon who was out on a furlough program over the weekend that raped a white woman. That incident was not only used to argue that not only was Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate, soft on crime, soft on the death penalty, but that essentially he was condoning this kind of violence. That was absolutely essential to George Bush Sr. winning the election.

The kind of dog-whistle politics of crime and punishment were really important in the Republican Party. So, when Bill Clinton runs in 1992, I think African Americans have experienced the intense racism of the Republican Party, and Bill Clinton himself runs on an anti-crime platform. He flies back before the New Hampshire convention in order to preside over the execution of a man who many felt had the IQ of a 7-year-old child, and he does this very publicly.

So, he himself takes an anti-crime stance, but he has close relationships with African American elites and political elites—his relationship with Maya Angelou, with Vernon Jordan, when he comes into the White House in 1992 and is reelected in 1996. The Bernie Sanders campaign describes him as having opened up political consulting for African Americans and brought African Americans into his inner circle. Other scholars have talked about this as black faces in high places. So, Bill Clinton was very effective and Hillary Clinton was a part of this.

She comes out and campaigns for the crime bill. That’s where this famous quote comes from her talking about bringing back the police. We need more police. And then [there was] her statement in 1996, bring them to heel, which was said about calling youth of color “super-predators.” Again, she doesn’t use the language of race directly, but these are dog-whistle politics in which you say the word “super-predator.” In the 1980s and 1990s, people knew what that meant. It was about these young people that had been arrested in the War on Drugs at the height of the crack crisis. So, even though it’s not said, having lived through that era, you knew what that meant.

The Clintons have always been able to negotiate this complex stance, where they use and usurp essentially the real rhetorical and also the not just rhetoric and practices of criminalization. It’s important to note that under Bill Clinton’s presidency with Hillary as First Lady, six hundred thousand people were put in prison and that’s at the federal and state level. Now, of course, the president isn’t directly responsible for putting people in state prisons, but the passage of mandatory minimums, the federal mandatory minimum law, the expansion of the death penalty with sixty new crimes, this use of the punitive turn in punishment policies from the top down worked to really push states further to the right.

They preside over the single biggest period of mass incarceration, much more so than the notorious Republican drug warriors of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. But somehow, the Clintons have been able to represent themselves as the friends of African Americans so much so that Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize laureate, says in jest that he is the first black president. And, while many people say that Toni Morrison was essentially saying that with a certain amount of humor and irony, she was talking about listening to other Americans among African American elites in D.C. calling him the first black president.

Why? He played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall. What can we say about that?

KHALEK: I mean, I think people forget how huge that was too. Like that was a pretty big deal. In general, that was huge.

MURCH: In terms of cultural politics, absolutely. Playing a saxophone. Didn’t he put on a pair of Risky Business black Ray-Bans? So, in a country that is extremely racially polarized, the use of the racially symbolic was very important. But there was also—and more needs to be written about this—the use of the patronage networks and the way in which his close ties in the political machines and to black elected officials [were used]. He was being legitimized both through this cultural politics of being comfortable with black culture, being willing to enter black venues, and then also having the black political class be a part of the Clintons’ world.

That imagery and those networks really veiled the core policies, which arguably are the worst policies, much more extensive even then the retrenchment and punishment campaigns of the Reagan era. All of that was hidden and veiled by the racially symbolic, and the Clintons continue to be able to do this. There’s been criticism by certain sectors that to talk Hillary in conjunction with Bill is sexist, and I just want to address this directly.

Hillary Clinton herself has argued—and she argued this in her senate race and she argued this in her current presidential race—that her period as First Lady, she was intimately involved in policy making and that this was a period of her own political experience. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim the credential of having worked with her husband together on health care reform and other forms of policy, and then say I’m not responsible for what happened under my husband’s presidency.

As we’ve seen in her rhetoric, anti-crime rhetoric, anti-gang rhetoric, she was very much involved, not only in healthcare but in all different aspects of Bill Clinton’s presidency so I think he have to talk about that as part of her record of what she calls strength and experience. I think it’s absurd to say that it’s sexist to deal with that portion of her political career because she herself has used it as a credential.

KHALEK: Well said. I think that was the best argument to counter what she is saying. But on the patronage networks that you mention, it’s been left out of a lot of analysis about why Hillary Clinton has so much support among black people among the south and it’s sort of been used to just say that, oh, they just don’t like Bernie Sanders. So, I want to use that as a way to segue into the fact that Bernie Sanders does seem to have made inroads, particularly with black millennials who are organizing around and for his campaign. And also, he too has black intellectuals that support his campaign. He’s got Killer Mike stumping for him. Could you talk about the support for Bernie Sanders among the black community?

MURCH: I think this is a very exciting moment. Even on the dark day of Super Tuesday, when Bernie Sanders lost such a large percentage of the African American vote, I still found it to be ver interesting. If you go back to the South Carolina primary, Bernie Sanders was defeated by a large margin, maybe 30 percent in the majority black vote, but if you disaggregated the black vote by age, you saw that it was roughly 54 percent for Clinton, 43 percent for Sanders [among black millennials]. The disjuncture of age is true throughout all these different groups. It’s true among Latinos. It’s true among African Americans, and it’s also true among white voters. That even though Bernie is more popular among white voters, he is infinitely more popular among people under thirty.

The way that I interpret the Sanders campaign—and I wish people would talk about this more—is really it’s a core anti-austerity campaign that has its counterparts with Jeremy Corbyn in England and the Syriza Party in Greece. Because of the United States’ own political culture, I think there’s a discomfort in talking about the politics of the left and naming it directly, but essentially, Bernie Sanders is a New Deal Democrat, which that is derided by some people who are part of the organized left. But in the context of what’s happened in the U.S., what a conservative country it is, the extreme privatization, the so-called free trade policies, the subsidies for industry to relocate abroad, the real drop of corporate tax rates, and the dissolution of the American welfare state, running as a New Deal Democrat is a big deal. And young people understand this because they want a future.

When looking at African Americans, I’ve met people in the Sanders campaign. I was involved in a dialogue that happened about ten days before the Nevada primary, and Cornel West was there. I was there and Christopher Witt, and then people from the black Democratic caucus in Las Vegas from Clark County, which is the center of the African American vote in Nevada. We had an amazing three-hour discussion about all these different kinds of issues related to Bernie Sanders’ idea of a political revolution, what that means on the ground for African Americans, and also how we assess Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

It was just an exciting dialogue, and I got to meet all the different black organizers from all over the country, including the head of African American national outreach, the former field director in South Carolina, and then the whole campaign staff that they have in a famous black historic building in Atlanta called the Odd Fellows Building.

And it was exciting because what I saw first of all is this is an insurgent campaign inside the Democratic Party. These are not your usual suspects, and I’ve never really seen a political campaign like this. These are people who are truly committed to supporting Bernie Sanders, not just professional campaign people, and a lot of the people that I met were people who were well-educated, who came from poor and working class backgrounds. So, there’s a strong class component going on in the Sanders campaign, and as we were talking about the response to Trump at UIC, which is home to BYP 100, in the same way I see new coalitions being formed in black support for the Sanders campaign.

You see essentially black academics, of which there are many, including myself, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, many, many, many people. I mean, hundreds of black intellectuals and journalists have been actively involved in supporting the Sanders campaign both through the things that they write, through social media, and then through large events. Then you have people like Killer Mike, and you have portions of the arts community, like Spike Lee. So, a lot of the kind of, and I’m hesitant to talk about the class politics of this, but you do have a lot of black meaning makers supporting Bernie Sanders. You also have the Bernie Sanders campaign doing outreach to black labor.

For example, they were involved for a a fight for twelve dollar minimum wage in Birmingham, and Sanders supporters got directly involved in this, in making coalitions with the Communication Workers, with Larry Cohen. A portion of the left-wing of the labor movement, there’s also been outreach there. So, I see this as a new kind of coalition that’s combining their efforts to do outreach to historically black colleges, combining black millennials, black left intellectuals, and meaning makers, and cultural producers and then the left-wing of the labor movement.

Some of the images that have not made it into the mainstream are that their core organizing campaign was among historically black colleges. First of all, just the choice of that is so wonderful and important. I think that the comfort with doing that kind of outreach is different than what we saw with Barack Obama’s campaign, because of Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate being, as he always says, President of America, not just president of Afro-America. But this has been an exciting election because the black vote in some ways has been treated as very important, and I think that is related to the anti-state-sanctioned violence movement and Black Lives Matter.

We see this active courting of black people and discussions about them, and the Sanders campaign has just had some of the most radical organizing efforts. If you go online, there’s amazing footage of an event they organized at Morehouse in which they had people from Morehouse, from Spellman, from the Atlanta area, and then also people coming from the surrounding area at other historically black colleges.

The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, which is kind of the quintessential black nationalist fraternity, got up before Sanders gave his campaign speech and did a full step show, kind of south African boot dance, amazing in full suits and ties. That expression of black cultural power is so important, and it also speaks to the networks within the Sanders campaign at Morehouse, which is one of the pre-eminent men’s college, historically black university, very powerful, symbolic. So, I think that the mainstream representation of the Sanders campaign as simply white is not fair. I’ve met the African American campaign workers. There were a lot of them in the south.

There was not enough discussion about, one, the Clintons’ patronage networks, that these are long-standing networks. So much so, that if we remember in 2008, many of the black legislators supported Hillary, not Barack Obama. So, this goes back a very long way, and we didn’t see someone like John Lewis shift his allegiance from Hillary to Barack Obama until much later in the campaign when it became clear that it was likely that Obama would become the Democratic nominee. So, it’s exciting to see the vote in Michigan in which Bernie Sanders won 30 percent of the [black] vote, but he won forty-nine percent, I think it was, under forty. Again, that strong age component, and I’m really excited and curious to see what’s going to happen with some of the other elections in the north, in the midwest, and west coast.

For the rest of the discussion, listen here.

In this February 14, 2006 photograph, members of U.S. Navy assigned to Guantanamo Bay place shackles on a prisoner's arms in preparation for moving him from his cell.  (Flickr / U.S. Navy / Photographer's Mate 1st Class Brien Aho)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."