By Sunday evening, Portland, Ore., fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had watched their candidate be shamed off a stage by activists who claimed to represent the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There were more rumors, about more protests by people who believed Sanders did not “center black lives” in his presidential campaign. But the 28,000 progressives who’d filled the Moda Center had their nerves calmed by a 25-year-old black woman.
“My name is Symone Sanders,” she said, to applause. “I am joining the campaign this week as the national press secretary.” More applause. “I have some good information that says there might be a little disruption tonight. So: I wanna be very clear. This campaign is about bringing people together. If there happens to be a disruption tonight, I want everyone in this stadium to respond with a chant.”
Symone Sanders led the crowd in a dry run: “We! Stand! Together!” As more Bernie Sanders (no relation) supporters talked about uniting the left, and about “a climate justice movement that works for racial and global economic justice,” Symone Sanders stayed onstage. This was not her first time in a room full of people screaming for a president.
The rise of Symone Sanders is a blessing for an insurgent campaign that keeps getting interrupted by activists crying out for racial justice. Just weeks ago, after protesters disrupted Bernie Sanders’s Q&A at the progressive Netroots Nation conference, some mocked the candidate by joking about his civil rights cred with the tag #BerniesSoBlack. Nobody’s going to try that with Symone Sanders, who left the Campaign for Juvenile Justice for this role. People who’ve worked with her describe a smart, ambitious progressive who’s been engaged in politics since she was a teenager growing up in Omaha. In 2006, a 16-year-old Sanders learned that Bill Clinton would be addressing a year-end fundraiser for Girls Inc., a nonprofit that trains young women to be confident and skilled. Sanders, a Girls Inc. member, told executive director Roberta Wilhelm that she needed to be the one introducing Clinton onstage.
“She lobbied me like a pitbull — I say that with all due respect,” remembered Wilhelm. “She got that coveted spot on the stage and she blew everybody away.” A contemporary report from the Omaha World-Herald quoted Clinton’s praise: “Symone, you spoke so well, I kind of hate to follow you.” A year later, Clinton published an inoffensive book about giving to charity, called Giving. He singled out Sanders as a woman who’d “come a long way and is going a lot further.”
At the time, Sanders told people that she wanted to be a judge. At Omaha’s Creighton University, and in jobs after college, she switched gears and started working in electoral and movement politics.
“She’s since sort of changed her career trajectory,” said Wilhelm. “You can see how that’s working. People respond to what she does because she’s awesome.”
Sanders helped the doomed, progressive 2014 gubernatorial campaign of Chuck Hassebrook, a Democrat given no chance to beat Ameritrade dynast Pete Ricketts. “She is strong and makes her own path,” said Jane Fleming Kleeb, a leading activist against the Keystone XL pipeline. “Omaha has a big black population, and she was there, working at community forums, working on education issues and economic justice. She also ensured Chuck didn’t back down from No KXL. I’ve seen a lot of progressives go to work for candidates, who then become Republican-lite. And that didn’t happen. That’s what I’m most proud of watching her do.”
Symone Sanders got into the Bernie Sanders campaign the same way: Refusing to paper over the candidate’s issues. She was one of the activists Sanders sought out after Netroots as he analyzed why the Netroots forum had gone so awry. In a weekend interview with Buzzfeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro, Symone Sanders said she told the candidate that he had to make a contemporary pitch, and “not just, ‘Oh, I fought for civil rights and I protested and I sat at the lunch counters.’”
He offered her a job after one hour-long conversation. The importance of her role was felt immediately, at her first rally appearances in Seattle and Portland. At both rallies, Symone Sanders got considerable onstage time to walk the crowd through the Bernie Sanders criminal justice pitch. In Portland, another speaker accidentally introduced the candidate — Symone Sanders took back the mic, because her speech was meant to precede his. Just that morning, a “racial justice” page on BernieSanders.com had finally gone live.
“A year ago today, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown and left his body lying in the street for four and a half hours,” she said in Portland. “Following Michael Brown’s death, protesters and activists took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and they stayed in the streets for 365 days, galvanizing young people to do the same. A year ago today, young people in America today were galvanized to say that these killings must end.”
She read the names of black people killed in encounters with police officers — then came then turn. “It is important that we say Black Lives Matter, but it is also important that we have people in political offices who will turn those words into action,” she said. Racial justice meant not just sitting at the same table as power, but “owning the establishment,” as Martin Luther King had said. Quotes that could set off protesters when Bernie Sanders used them were pure applause lines when coming out of the mouth of Symone Sanders.
“When you look into your hearts, deep into your hearts, you know which candidate for president will shut down the private prison industry, mandatory minimums, the death penalty,” said Symone Sanders. “You know which candidate will have alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, and which candidate will really use his justice department to protect black lives.”
She closed with a call for “multi-racial political revolution.” Only then did the crowd hear from Bernie Sanders, candidate for president.