Bernie Sanders' Sandra Bland Remarks Reveal Exactly How Activism Has Changed His Campaign

On Monday, a Texas grand jury returned a decision on one of the most fraught and controversial deaths in recent memory. Namely, that of 28-year-old black woman Sandra Bland, who was found dead by hanging in a Waller County jail cell on July 13, just three days following her violent arrest by state trooper Brian Encinia. The grand jury returned no indictments in relation to Bland's death, which was ruled a suicide, and it drew a prompt response from one Democratic presidential candidate: Bernie Sanders' response to the Sandra Bland grand jury showed real urgency, growth, and priority, and it's a sign of just how far the Vermont socialist has come on the issues of race, justice, and police violence.

Suffice to say, Sanders' campaign has had some rocky moments relating to these issues, spurred initially by protests launched by Black Lives Matter activists, who both wanted to secure concrete promises from the far-left presidential candidate, and make it plain that the progressive movement needed to respect and front-burner these issues in 2016. The result was a pair of thwarted Sanders speaking engagements, one at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and one at a rally in Seattle, Washington. The actions stirred up a lot of critical, even disparaging coverage of BLM from ostensibly progressive sources, including vehement pushback from many Sanders supporters on social media.

But despite the prickliness from some of his more aggressive, overzealous supporters — some of which has inflamed a deep, abiding bitterness towards his candidacy within black and activist circles — you'd be hard pressed to deny that Sanders has emerged a stronger candidate for all the criticism and scrutiny, and sounds far more comfortable talking about race than he did earlier in his campaign, when his answers all tended to frame economic justice as paramount.

There have been some awkward moments, sure: his invocation of having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s, for example, which mirrored the reductive reasoning that some of his supporters have trumpeted on social media, once again to many people's chagrin.

But he now seems to realize he was hurting himself with that myopic approach, and this isn't just an academic issue for his campaign. Sanders' poor numbers among non-white voters are damn near disqualifying at the moment, so it bears mentioning that regardless of who you might ultimately support, he's actually shown a tremendous amount of growth on these issues. Not so much in what he believes, perhaps, but certainly how he prioritizes and espouses those beliefs. And in reading his simple, direct, morally forceful statement above, you get a pretty good glimpse of this change — he directly cited race as the most relevant core factor in the Sandra Bland case, saying that "she would be alive today if she were a white woman." In short, this was not a "we must respect the process" moment.

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Sanders was the first Democratic candidate to reference the Bland decision, and he's been the one who's most frequently invoked her name over the past several months — back in October, Sanders reportedly met Bland's mother Geneva Reed-Veal in a chance encounter in a Washington, D.C. restaurant, and he pledged to keep talking about it. And clearly he's kept that promise in mind as he responded to the grand jury announcement. Since Monday, long-shot Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley has also weighed in on the case.