It was a simple question. Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?
“Black lives matter,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he was echoed in spirit by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O’Malley during the first Democratic presidential debate.
Forget that this rhetorical opposition (either black lives or all lives) is unfounded—claiming that black lives matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t. In the common parlance, all lives will matter when black lives matter. Try to forget that this was one of very few questions touching on race relations at Tuesday’s Democratic debate, or that Clinton didn’t say the exact words.
The question underscored the success and importance of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which has kept the issue of police brutality and its underlying causes front and centerduring this election cycle. From street-level demonstrations to online organizing, in the wake of each numbing shooting and beyond, the movement remains active.
The question led to a number of promising statements: from Sanders on combatting “institutional racism” to Clinton calling for “a new New Deal for communities of color.” There were numerous aspersions against our broken criminal justice system. Certainly the discussion was more substantive than at the first two Republican debates.
The issues that Black Lives Matter protestors have brought to the forefront are not necessarily new: the devaluing of minority lives, income and opportunity inequality, to name a few.
Criminal justice reform, in particular, has been on the edge of the political horizon for some time. But the movement has been successful in cementing these issues in the public consciousness, and forcing our elected leaders to pay attention. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose 99 percent rhetoric prepared an electorate for Sanders’campaign, and recent grassroots activism on climate change, which normalizes candidates’ discussions of ambitious green energy plans, protest movements continue to be vital to the American political process.
Tuesday night, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley mentioned that he had hope for America when talking to “our young people under 30" — people who don’t bash immigrants or deny rights. It’s a standard political call, but in this case a true one.
The Black Lives Matter protestors deserve that hope, and our thanks.