PHOENIX (TheBlaze/AP) — Demonstrators protesting cases of police brutality and the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement disrupted a presidential forum on Saturday as Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley was interviewed on stage. The group later heckled Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In a raucous scene at the annual Netroots Nation convention of liberal activists, a large group of protesters streamed into the convention hall chanting, "Black lives matter!" as O'Malley was speaking to interviewer Jose Antonio Vargas. One of the group's leaders took over the stage and addressed the audience as the largely female group of demonstrators railed against police-involved shootings, the treatment of immigrants and Arizona's racial history.
Video: Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists Netroots Nation townhall in Pho… pic.twitter.com/0robSgniXj— SavageNation (@SavageNation) July 18, 2015
The demonstrators were promoting the national "Black Lives Matter" movement, which has sought changes to law enforcement policies in the aftermath of sometimes-violent protests in several cities. The group grew from the fatal shooting of a black, unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb.
Sanders and O'Malley are vying to become the alternative to Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was campaigning in Iowa and Arkansas on Saturday and did not attend Netroots.
Before the demonstrations broke out, Vargas pressed O'Malley to defend his law enforcement record as Baltimore's mayor a decade ago. O'Malley faced scrutiny when unrest broke out in his home city after an African-American man, Freddie Gray, died while in police custody in April.
O'Malley discussed his work to deal with violence and drug addiction in Baltimore, telling the crowd, "there are very few issues in our country that are quite as painfully intertwined as the legacy of violence, race and law enforcement in America." He said his policies improved policing, reduced the number of police-involved shootings and increased drug treatment.
About 20 minutes into the interview, demonstrators walked into the cavernous ballroom, creating a confusing scene. Tia Oso, National Coordinator for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in Phoenix, took the stage and addressed the crowd, noting two years had passed since the the Black Lives Matter movement started.
"We want to take a moment at Netroots to acknowledge the lives lost," Oso said. Organizers sought to restore order and at one point, Cheryl Contee, a Netroots Nation board member, took the stage and asked the audience to allow O'Malley to respond.
O'Malley said all Americans have a responsibility to "recognize the pain and the grief throughout our country, through all the lives that have been lost to violence." He reiterated that every police department should be required to report all police-involved shootings and create civilian review boards.
"Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter," O'Malley told the crowd, as some protesters heckled him.
Sanders, during his abbreviated 20 minute appearance, spoke about the need to address wealth and income inequality, noting that blacks and Hispanics face high rates of unemployment.
His remarks were interrupted at times by the protesters, prompting Sanders to respond, "Black lives of course matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights."
Sanders called the criminal justice system "out of control" and described high rates of unemployment and incarceration for young black Americans.
Netroots Nation executive director Raven Brooks said in a statement that the organization "stands in solidarity with all people seeking human rights." He said Netroots aimed to give presidential candidates to respond to the issues faced by many diverse communities.
"Although we wish the candidates had more time to respond to the issues, what happened today is reflective of an urgent moment that America is facing today," Brooks said.
Here's another video taken Saturday of demonstrators chanting "This is what democracy looks like!" apparently while exiting a large conference room. (Content warning: One profanity at end of clip):
This story has been updated.
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