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SELMA, Alabama — Black activists turned their backs on him in church. African American leaders said they don’t trust him. Others in the crowd just plain didn’t know him.
A choppy Southern swing for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg over the weekend doesn’t bode well for his Super Tuesday showing with African American voters, a crucial voting bloc in states where Bloomberg will have to do well to justify his continued existence in the hunt for the 2020 presidential nomination.
As voters go to the polls in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arkansas, the question is whether Bloomberg has made enough inroads with Southern black voters to mount a serious challenge to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Martin Luther King III praised Bloomberg’s work on climate and gun violence prevention, an issue that they’ve worked on together. But King also said he hasn’t done enough to gain the trust of black voters still angry over his stop-and-frisk policing policy during his mayoral tenure, which disproportionately hit the black community. He did make a statement apologizing for it, but not until February.
“There's anger and hostility,” King told VICE News. “Stop and frisk is going to come up, and he's going to have to find an answer for that or else he's not he's not gonna be able to get much support from the black community.”
“I think it’s just an insult for him to come here.”
The hostile and sometimes awkward reception was on display during a pre-march church service at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma on Sunday. Rev. Leodis Strong, the church’s pastor, welcomed Bloomberg onto the stage by telling the crowd the former mayor was initially too busy to accept his invitation to attend the service. Nevertheless, Strong asked the crowd to hear Bloomberg out and noted that his very presence showed a capacity to change.
During the speech, a handful of attendees stood up from the pews, turned their backs, and remained that way until Bloomberg left the stage.
Lisa Brown, one of the protesters who'd traveled from her home in Los Angeles, said she wanted the former mayor to know that she resents his attempt to swoop into the race late and buy the presidency.
“I think it’s just an insult for him to come here,” Brown told VICE News. “He doesn't have enough respect to take the time and campaign the way that he should, and he's only there because he can afford to be there.”
Bloomberg spokesman Michael Frazier responded that “there are few who have done more for the black community than Mike,” and touted his record as mayor and as a philanthropist.
"The great thing about this country is that you have the right to speak your mind, or in this case, silently protest,” he said. “Voters have a chance to have their voices heard today, and we feel good about the case Mike has made for rebuilding this country."
Bloomberg has been pitching his Greenwood Initiative to create generational wealth in the African-American community. It’s named after the neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was destroyed in a devastating 1921 race terrorism attack on its well-to-do black residents. Historians estimate the violence resulted in potentially hundreds of murdered African Americans, making it one of the worst racial attacks in U.S. history.
That riot is seared into the consciousness of black activists. A vendor at the Selma march was selling posters commemorating the attack on “Black Wall Street,” as the neighborhood was called. But at a breakfast before the march, Bloomberg told attendees he had only learned about the attack four or five months ago.
That kind of blind spot to the indignities African Americans have historically faced, the indignities Bloomberg’s policies have subjected them to in New York City, and the late promises to help are the exact reasons his run for office is being met with so much skepticism. At least according to Rev. Al Sharpton, who marched alongside all the candidates in Selma, even as he said he has protested them all before.
That puts Bloomberg in sharp contrast to Biden, who, although he has his own checkered policy past — the crime bill, Anita Hill — has come to earn the trust of many in the community.
“I lead the marches on Bloomberg, and on Joe Biden about the crime bill,” Sharpton told VICE News. “I think that what has happened is that a lot of people in the black community saw eight years of Joe Biden being the partner to Barack Obama and fighting for him since he did the crime bill, and I think the problem with a lot of the other candidates is there's no body of work since the things that they have done that we disagreed with.”
On Tuesday, huge pockets of African Americans will also vote in California, Texas, and Virginia, and Bloomberg will need those votes to be a factor in those states. The demographic is, of course, not monolithic, and signs are popping up that even as the activist class turns its back on Bloomberg, his candidacy polls better among average black voters.
But Biden won across age and gender lines in South Carolina, and if that trend holds on Super Tuesday and beyond, it may be difficult for Bloomberg to make up ground. He currently polls third behind first place Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden in second nationally, and Biden and Sanders have been jostling for first place among black voters in national polls.
Bloomberg’s run will fail if he flops with black voters, especially if other black voters around the country take cues from the African-Americans in early states when it comes their turn to cast a ballot.
As Bloomberg entered the church in Selma, Raymond Wynn, a 66-year-old welder from Cincinnati, was holding a digital camcorder to get a shot of his entrance among a crowd near the door. He’s an undecided voter, he said, but what happens on Super Tuesday will factor heavily into who he picks in Ohio’s March 17 primary.
“I'm just waiting after Super Tuesday and I'll see what it all comes down to,” he said. “I'm more likely to just go with the favorite Democrat that's ahead.”
Cover: People turn their backs on Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as he speaks at Brown Chapel AME church, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma , Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)