U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards

U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md., running in 2016 for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), was the primary speaker for the, “Democratic Gain: Black Lives Matter” program. The event was held Dec. 3 at the headquarters of the National Education Association and was sponsored by Democratic Gain, a millennial-based organization that deals with recruitment of young activists into the professional political arena.

Edwards said criticism of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, calling it ineffective because it doesn’t have an explicit political party agenda is not right. “I don’t buy that at all,” the representative said. “Many movements were started by young people and started in the streets and then dialogue on social change started.”

Edwards is locked into a tight race for the Democratic nomination with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for the April 26 primary. Millennials, Americans that are 18-34 years old, are expected to play a key role in the 2016 election, across all races, including the presidency and both houses of Congress.

The voting strength of millennials has made a difference in recent elections. In 2012, the millennial turnout was 45 percent and much of that vote went to President Obama and Democratic candidates, according to statistics from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

However, in 2014, roughly only 20 percent of millennials voted in the November general election that produced stronger Republican majorities in the U.S. Congress and in some gubernatorial contests in Maryland and Illinois, normally Democratic strongholds. The Baltimore and Washington, D.C. suburbs have large populations of millennials and Edwards and Van Hollen are campaigning for those votes.

Edwards said that BLM’s job is to drive policy makers to make the change that they want. She encouraged the young people not to become cynical about the political process. “If you listen to the Washington political establishment, they will tell you that the work of BLM can’t be done,” she said. “Despite that talk, you must be fearless as you carry on your work especially when you are dealing with law enforcement.”

Edwards talked briefly about her 27-year-old son, Jared Edwards, and the fears that she has when he is driving. She told him that when pulled over by a police officer to keep his hands on the steering wheel, don’t reach into the glove compartment for driving documents until the officer tells you to do so and be respectful.

Nevertheless, she said, “law enforcement has to be respectful in our community” too.

Edwards said that BLM has elevated the country’s conversation on race and racism. “That’s good because even the presidential candidates are paying attention to those types of issues because of BLM,” she said.

Edwards has long been an opponent of easy access to guns and earlier this year took the NRA to task for its reluctance to embrace universal background checks for firearm purchases. “We need to challenge the NRA to get guns off of our streets,” she said. “Baltimore has lost more than 300 lives to gun violence.”

She made an indirect reference to the San Bernardino, Calif., killings by saying that in the Black community “they don’t die 14 at a time they die one at a time.”

Kouri Marshall, the executive director of Democratic Gain, said that the representative’s speech made a lot of sense. “Those of us in this room have done the right things, gone to high school, gone to college, and got a degree,” Marshall said. “But it doesn’t matter how educated and committed we are, we are still subject to police brutality and that is why we proudly proclaim that Black lives matter.”

In other news, Edwards recently picked up the endorsement of three members of the Congressional Black Caucus. U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) and Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) support her Senate bid. “I am thrilled to receive the endorsement of these three leaders and members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Edwards said. “These members embody the fighting spirit of my campaign and I look forward to continuing our work together.”