Bernie Sanders' Most Powerful Supporter Is Not a Rich Celebrity

January 30th 2016

Kylie Cheung

Erica Garner, a prominent Black activist and the daughter of Eric Garner, endorsed Bernie Sanders on Friday in an op-ed for The Washington Post. Garner, whose father was choked to death in 2014 by NYPD officers, identified Sanders as the strongest ally for the Black community and the leader they needed.

"Black Americans — all Americans — need a leader with a record that speaks for itself," she wroter. "And to me, it’s clear. Of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders is our strongest ally."

Garner wrote that she supported Sanders not only for the comprehensive current plans he has that will benefit the African American community, from criminal justice reform and "real investment in black neighborhoods," to jobs and education, but for his decades-long record as a civil rights supporter.

"The answer is someone who started this work well before campaign season, who understands our deaths as tragedies — not political talking points — and someone who will speak out against the wars being waged against our communities," Garner said. "Not someone who only pays attention to our concerns when it’s time to collect our votes."

Sanders' stron civil rights history, which includes participating in the March on Washington, spearheading anti-segregation protests, and even facing arrest, hasn't always been enough for Black Lives Matter activists. Over the summer, he was challenged by activists demanding that he put focus on racial justice like he did issues of economic equity, rather than rely on his track record.

But as Garner wrote in her essay, Sanders embraced this criticism, meeting with Black Lives Matter activists on multiple occasions.

"He prioritized a racial justice platform," Garner explained in her op-ed. "He spoke out, in speeches and debates, about Sandra Bland and declared that black lives do matter. He heard us, and I believe he’ll continue to listen. He’s learning from us, working with us and respecting the power of we, the people, over the established political machine."

Although Sanders' platform and track record on civil rights stood out to Garner, in particular, Sanders' rivals for the Democratic nomination have also emerged as strong Black Lives Matter supporters. Governor Martin O'Malley and Secretary Clinton have met with activists, highlighted criminal justice reform plans, and mae civil rights a main talking point at the last Democratic debate, following their own initially hostile run-ins with Black Lives Matter activists.

Even GOP candidate Rand Paul expressed support for black activists' demands for reforms in policing, incarceration, and the War on Drugs at the most recent Republican debate on Thursday.

Following his death in 2014, Eric Garner has become a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in 2013 in response to the disproportionate effects of police brutality on the Black community and achieved more political influence than ever in 2015. Erica, his eldest daughter, founded the Garner Way Foundation.

Since his tense, early run-ins with Black Lives Matter activists at a Democratic party forum in July and a Seattle rally in August, Sanders has since included civil rights more frequently in his rhetoric, and the day after the Seattle rally, released a sweeping plan for racial justice on his website.

Sanders advocates strongly for reforms in mass incarceration, criminal justice, and policing, all of which disproportionately target African American men, and protecting poor black communities from environmental hazards. His unique stance on the federal legalization of marijuana might not seem especially connected to Black Lives Matter, but is an important step in combating the War on Drugs, which has disproportionately targeted African Americans for decades.