For the past week, these activists have shown up at Buttigieg’s presidential campaign events in California and Iowa, interrupting the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s campaign speeches and passing out flyers headlined “Mayor Pete Has A Black Problem.”
In Des Moines on Sunday, in the middle of his campaign speech, activists shouted for an ambulance (there was apparently no medical emergency) to get the former’s mayor’s attention and press him about his record on housing and homelessness as mayor of South Bend.
“I think your facts are a little wrong, so I’d love a chance to talk with you about it, but I’d like for us to talk about it respectfully,” Buttigieg, still onstage, told one protester who accused him of systematically demolishing hundreds of Black- and brown-owned homes in the city he oversaw.
“We’ve been trying to talk to you since South Bend, Pete,” a protester shouted back before the interaction was drowned out by “BOOT-EDGE-EDGE” chants from the crowd.
On Monday night in Ames, Iowa, campaign staff politely requested that the activists move their leafleting across the street. The protesters obliged.
Buttigieg’s campaign has struggled to gain traction with Black voters nationally. His recent bump in the polls has been isolated to largely white states like Iowa and New Hampshire. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll in early January showed Buttigieg with only 2% support among Black voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden polled at 48% and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had 20% support.
The activists following Buttigieg around are part of the South Bend chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which reignited its work in the summer of 2019 after a white South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old Black resident. The group has been holding regular press conferences for several weeks.
Emmanuel Cannady, a BLM activist and graduate student at Notre Dame University who was passing out flyers outside the Ames event, said he initially supported Buttigieg’s presidential run in the spring of 2019. But he has been frustrated to see the candidate’s record in South Bend go unscrutinized, especially after Logan’s death.
“The big word I wish came out of Mayor Pete, that has not come out of Mayor Pete yet, was ‘accountability,’” Cannady said. “Accountability for the police department when Eric Logan was shot and killed this summer by Officer Ryan O’Neill.”
The Logan shooting garnered national attention and shone a harsh spotlight on the then-mayor’s record. Black residents of South Bend openly accused Buttigieg of caring more about winning Black votes in South Carolina than addressing racial injustice at home. The city implemented a body camera policy in 2018, and Buttigieg reinforced rules around the public safety measure after the shooting.
“The ultimate goal is to get people to understand who Pete is. He has not succeeded in making South Bend a 21st-century city,” another BLM activist, Ouija Kane, told HuffPost. “He is anti-Black and anti-poor.”
While Buttigieg’s campaign vigorously disputes the claims being made, they’ve maintained a cordial relationship with the BLM activists on the campaign trail. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown up at presidential campaign events in the past — notably when protesters interrupted several of Sanders’ 2016 campaign stops. Sanders has since made substantial inroads with communities of color.
Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor of South Bend, which ended this January, makes up much of his pitch for the presidency. He’s said his leadership in the city helped transform a dying Rust Belt town into a prosperous, up-and-coming city. The city’s homelessness dropped 33% between 2016 and 2019. But some in his community, particularly those among the communities of color, are critical of this version of history.
Poverty remains high in South Bend, particularly among the city’s Black and Latinx residents, who make up roughly 40% of the 100,000-person population. In 2017, a city-commissioned study found the Black population of the city had higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the nationwide average for Black Americans, with roughly 40% of local Black residents living below the poverty line. While Buttigieg touts South Bend’s low overall unemployment rate of 4%, the rate is 11% for Black residents. Poverty and unemployment rates among Black residents are substantially lower than when Buttigieg first took office in 2012. The Black unemployment rate has dropped nearly 70% and their poverty rate has fallen roughly 40%.
Buttigieg’s housing initiative, “1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days” — which knocked down vacant and abandoned homes ― created distrust between the mayor’s office and South Bend’s communities of color. The project primarily impacted Black and Latinx neighborhoods, where fines were leveled on vacant homes that didn’t meet city codes. The local paper reported that in some cases that meant destroying Black-owned investment properties.
Buttigieg himself admitted the initiative had problems in implementation. After facing community pressure, his office established a grant program to help families meet the city requirements for their homes.
That said, Buttigieg maintains good relationships with several Black leaders in South Bend.
“The opinions of South Bend Black Lives Matter are not necessarily representative of the Black community in South Bend, many of whom are supportive of Pete and believe that our city has gotten better under his leadership,” Councilwoman Sharon McBride said in a statement.
The Buttigieg campaign is aware that it’s struggled to garner support among Black voters. Last summer Buttigieg called outreach to communities of color part of his campaign’s “homework.”
Since then, the campaign said, aides have organized meetings with local Black elected officials, activists and pastors and held focus groups with Black voters. It released an ambitious platform — titled “The Douglass Plan For Black America” — that calls for investments in housing and education and lays out policies to address health disparities, the racial wealth gap, criminal justice reform and voting rights. The campaign released its second South Carolina radio ad this week featuring Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of civil rights champion Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and one of Buttigieg’s campaign organizers.
We know Iowa is incredibly white. We are able to provide an experience of Mayor Pete that they don’t know. Emmanuel Cannady, Black Lives Matter activist, on protesting at the Iowa primary debate
But these efforts haven’t gone smoothly. In November, The Intercept reported that Buttigieg’s campaign had claimed prominent Black leaders in South Carolina had “endorsed” his Douglass Plan without the leaders’ explicit knowledge. Some had not endorsed the plan, and others were upset that the campaign made it seem like they were backing Buttigieg.
Buttigieg’s campaign then distanced itself from a leaked report from one of its focus groups, which said that Black voters had an issue with the candidate’s sexual orientation.
For now, the Black Lives Matter activists have no plans to slow down ― they’re seeking donations to keep up their efforts ― and expect to be there at the Democratic primary debate in Iowa Tuesday night.
“We know Iowa is incredibly white. We are able to provide an experience of Mayor Pete that they don’t know,” Cannady said.
The story has been updated with more details about the Des Moines protest and additional statistics about the Black community in South Bend.