Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America

Thousands attend LA Sanders rally opened by black activist

Amid the Black Lives Matter controversy, Sanders picks up first union endorsement before the SRO event

LOS ANGELES — Bernie Sanders’ wild West Coast tour played the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on Monday night to an overflow crowd of more than 27,000 supporters eager to hear the Democratic presidential candidate’s populist message calling for an end to big money in politics and yawning income inequality.

There were no interruptions from Black Lives Matter organizers who shut down a Sanders rally in Seattle Saturday, a recurring tactic by the activist group to draw attention to racist government and law enforcement policies.

Los Angeles community activist Morris Griffin lined up to enter the arena, holding up a “Black Vote Matters” sign. He said he wasn’t there to prevent Sanders from speaking but to remind people that black voices need to be heard.

“We have been bypassed for years,” he said.

Distruptions by Black Lives Matter activists of at least two Bernie Sanders events is getting some backlash from liberals who embrace the fight against racism but don’t believe Sanders deserves to be a target.

“It is stupid, don’t do it,” wrote Hamilton Nolan on Gawker Monday. “Bernie Sanders? Bernie Sanders, of all presidential candidates, is the one that you choose to target on the issue of America’s structural racism? Bernie Sanders is the most progressive serious presidential candidate, and the most liberal, and the most vocal and wise on the issue of America’s entrenched and widening economy equality.”

Alex Paris, left, and Charles Malmsten wait to gain entry to the Bernie Sanders rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Haya El Nasser / Al Jazeera America

Most on the left have kept quiet because speaking out against the young black activists may be interpreted as opposing the Black Lives Matter movement that they actually support.

But now, even black voters such as Charles Malmsten, a 31-year-old African American lawyer who attended the Los Angeles event, are expressing their discontent.

“I’m pissed off about that,” said Malmsten, of the Seatte kerfuffle. “They’re hijacking the movement. … It simply looks bad.”

His friend, Alex Paris, a 31-year-old black marketing professional, said he came to the event to learn more about Sanders. He also said the Black Lives Matter tactics in Seattle were disconcerting, “especially since he (Sanders) has a history of working with black groups on civil rights issues.”

Sanders has emerged as the strongest Democratic presidential contender after Hillary Clinton. A recent CNN poll shows the Vermont Senator trailing Clinton by only 6 points in New Hampshire. 

Thousands have flocked to Sanders rallies across the country, many sporting “Feel the Bern” T-shirts. His West Coast swing is taking him to the deep-blue states of Washington (Seattle), Oregon (Portland) and California (Oakland and Los Angeles) where his stump speech recitation of hot-button issues hits all the marks with liberals: education, gay marriage, equal pay for women, 12 weeks of parental leave, pro-choice, affordable solar energy, ending to poverty with livable wages, a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, and, always a popular cry, spread the wealth now in the hands of the 1 percenters — “Billionaires, you can't have it all” brought a roar of approval in Los Angeles.

Hours before the rally, Sanders won the endorsement of the 180,000-member National Nurses United at a live and virtual event in Oakland. A nurse asked Sanders by phone how he would address racism within the criminal justice system. His answer was prompt.

“When we talk about creating a new America, at the top of our list is the end of racism in all its ugly forms,” he said. “All of us were nauseated, when we have seen the videos ... we know that if those folks were white they would not be dragged out of cars and thrown into jails.”

Sanders' response received generous applause. A woman in the crowd yelled, “Senator, do black lives matter to you?”

“Yes,” he said.

On Monday night, Sanders was introduced to the arena crowd by a rainbow coalition of minority and climage change activists and union supporters, including a nurse.

Symone Sanders, the National Youth Chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, reminded the crowd that Monday was the first anniversary of the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police and that protesters continue their work.

“Today, they are still on the streets,” she said, to thunderous applause. “Black lives matter. … It’s important to have people in political office who can turn their words into action.”

A man was shot and wounded Sunday night during an anniversary event marking Brown's death, and St. Louis County declared a state of emergency Monday. The Sanders rally also came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots.

Stephen Maranzano
Haya El Nasser/Al Jazeera America

Sanders, tieless and with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up announced in a raspy voice strained from speaking at rallies, “we don’t take money from corporations.”

He said his campaign raised $15 million from individual contributors and called for a grassroots political revolution.

“When we stay united, we can create a new America,” he said. “There is no president that will fight harder against institutional racism. There is no person that will push harder for fundamental changes in the criminal justice system.”

In Los Angeles, the sea of faces chanting and cheering Sanders were mostly white. A CNN/ORC poll in June shows him getting only 2 percent support from black Democrats, a figure that has remained constant since February.

“All along and from the get-go, he talked about things that most others don’t,” said, Stephen Maranzano, 61, who drove up from Orange County to attend the rally. “They were attacking the wrong guy,” he said, adding that he suspects that the protesters who drove Sanders off the stage in Seattle were part of the opposition. “His credentials on this issue (civil rights) are impeccable.”

“He needs to do more outreach to the minority community,” Maranzano said. “Because he is the one person who is going to represent them.”

Correction: This article has been amended to state that the Bernie Sanders campaign said it had raised $15 million, not $50 million.

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