Black Lives Matter activists met with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton after they were denied entry to a scheduled campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, which they had planned to disrupt.
"The place we ended up arriving with her, in part, was a personal discussion about what we think would work,” said Julius Jones, founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one of the activists who attended the meeting. "For her, she was saying that the policies that they tried to implement in the eighties and nineties just didn't work, and they had the unfortunate consequence of being enacted on black or brown bodies more than anyone else.” The Clinton campaign told the New Republic that they are preparing a statement about today's meeting.
Clinton, according to Jones, felt as if the system would be more easily changed structurally, through policy change–rather than tackling anti-blackness in white people through widespread cultural change. "She said that she didn't feel that you were going to be able to change hearts; that you can change systems, and then maybe you can change hearts.”
Jones and the rest of the group contended that it was the racism embedded in the policies that needed to be addressed as well. "She was not willing to concede that the inherent anti-blackness in the policies that were enacted to address problems is the cause of the problems we have today," Jones said. "She didn’t concede that."
Led by Black Lives Matter Boston founder Daunasia Yancey, the activists went to the event with intention of staging a protest similar to the disruption of a Netroots Nation event featuring two Democratic hopefuls, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley and current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. O'Malley subsequently released a criminal justice reform plan that responded to many of the protesters' concerns. But Sanders was interrupted again on Saturday at an event in Seattle. Sanders's supporters have been vocal in print and online articles, as well as social media, about their consternation that their candidate, a vocal supporter of civil rights for decades, was the target of Black Lives Matter protests. Many openly wondered why Clinton was not herself a target. Activists and journalists, including me, have defended the protests.
When they arrived at today’s Clinton event, which focused on substance abuse and the heroin epidemic, after first sharing their talking points and questions exclusively with the New Republic, the activists found the entrances closed by U.S. Secret Service who said the venue was at capacity. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who was in contact with the five activists, later told the New Republic that the activists were eventually let into an “overflow room.” Following the event, Clinton met with the group for about 15 minutes in a private meeting that they claim turned contentious at times, and featured Clinton giving unsolicited advice for the direction of the movement.
The group's remarks and questions varied a bit from the script they prepared, which focused on criminal justice policies Clinton had supported while her husband was president, but not in tone. "I asked specifically about her and her family's involvement in the War on Drugs at home and abroad, and the implications that has had on communities of color and especially black people in terms of white supremacist violence," Yancey told me in an interview after the meeting. "And I wanted to know how she felt about her involvement in those processes.”
Asked whether Clinton actually proposed policies in the meeting, Jones said, "Not that I recall, no. In fact, I know that she didn’t because she was projecting that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do is X,Y, and Z—to which we pushed back [to say] that it is not her place to tell the Black Lives Matter movement or black people what to do, and that the real work doesn’t lie in the victim-blaming that that implies. And that was a rift in the conversation." Jones said that the meeting concluded without any aggression, and that the meeting was "respectful."
As first lady, Clinton lobbied on behalf of her husband's tough-on-crime stance, telling a gathering of female police officers in 1994 that a pending crime bill would "make a difference in your lives as police officers and in the lives of the communities you serve." In The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander cites sentencing policies passed during the Clinton administration as playing a decisive role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population.
Clinton gave a major speech at Columbia University in April regarding criminal justice reform, calling for an end to mass incarceration. The former Secretary of State also noted that of a large percentage of the more than two million Americans currently in prison are low-level offenders, many of them simply waiting for trial. In late May, she not only signaled her intention to make substance abuse a key issue in her campaign, but as the Huffington Post reported, began drafting policy solutions. “The drug epidemic, meth, pills in Iowa, and then I got to New Hampshire and at my very first coffee shop meeting I heard about the heroin epidemic in New Hampshire,” Clinton said in a Google Hangout organized by her campaign in May, adding, "This is tearing families apart, but it is below the surface. People aren’t talking about it, because it’s something that is hard to deal with.”
"We were going in there with the understanding that we were combating systems, but we're also encountering a person with a higher level of responsibility for the way that the systems are today than most anyone in the presidential race," Jones said. "We went in there with that understanding, and chose to press her on her personal involvement and her personal feelings about her involvement, and what she was going to do to change it, given her husband's history of perpetuating mass incarceration and the War on Drugs."
When asked whether the group accomplished its goals for the day, despite not being able to have their say inside the event, Jones noted the presence of the Secret Service that protects Clinton. "That is a bit of a game-changer when it comes to personal safety," he said. "Whether or not a disruption would have been more productive, I can’t say—but I know that direct action wins. It has won against Bernie Sanders, and it will push the other candidates if it were to happen to them. But in this instance, what we walked away with was the best that we could walk away with. I have no regrets about it whatsoever. It happened the way it was supposed to happen and it moved the needle more towards justice, for sure."
Yancey was called the “new face of Boston’s civil rights movement” in a February Boston magazine profile. An activist since the age of 13, Yancey was trained largely in local LGBT youth organizations. She has led marches and rallies in Boston, including one in November shortly after the announcement that no charges would be filed in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Fifty-one protesters were arrested.
Additional reporting by Steven Cohen.
This story has been updated.