Hillary Clinton’s meeting in New Hampshire earlier this month with activists from Black Lives Matter was one of the most interesting moments so far of the 2016 campaign.
It’s unusual the public sees such behind-the-scenes meetings, and this one was frank, tense, unscripted and raw. Presidential candidates, particularly frontrunners with Secret Service protection like Clinton, are rarely confronted directly by people who don’t agree with them, forced to listen to the questioner speak for a long time and then answer follow-up questions from the interrogator.
Clinton was right in one major way. It seemed as if she was trying to say, ‘whatever happened in the past, we agree on the problems now. Let’s work together to fix them.”
She told the activists, “All I'm suggesting is—even for us sinners—find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives, and that's what I would love to have your thoughts about, because that's what I'm trying to figure out how to do.”
Her approach resembled in some ways how President Obama dealt with Latino and gay rights activists during his first term. Obama was being pushed to adopt policies like ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” and immigration law changes that would ensure people like the so-called “Dreamers” were granted some kind of legal status.
In these meetings, as has been widely-reported, Obama at times expressed annoyance with these activists lecturing him about the policy. His view was he already agreed with the activists’ policy ideas, he needed to work with them so that he had the political space to accomplish the goals.
The unspoken reality that Obama was expressing was that he was not on a political suicide mission. If there was no political or congressional support for these policies, it would be hard to move them, whatever his own personal feelings.
Clinton was suggesting she agrees with the need for better policies for African-Americans, and she wanted to join with the activists and build a movement to accomplish them, instead of having the activists continue to criticize her.
“I'm ready to do my part in any way that I can,” she said at the end of the meeting.
Where her perspective seemed off was comparing Black Lives Matter with other movements, such as gay rights, immigration, women’s rights or the 1960’s civil rights pushes. Clinton seemed to suggest the activists needed to have a 10-point plan to hand to her, or a master strategy that was obvious and that she could join.
“They had a plan — this piece of legislation, this court case we’re going to make, et cetera, et cetera. Same with the gay rights movement. You know, we’re sick of homophobia. We’re sick of being discriminated against. We want marriage equality. We’re starting in the states, and we’re going to keep going until we get it at the highest court in the land,” she said, describing the 1960’s civil rights activists and the gay rights activists of the last two decades.
It might be ideal for these young activists to have such a plan right now, but they don’t necessarily have to.
Black Lives Matter is a very young movement, only about a year old. It is lives on Twitter as much as in any physical place.
It lacks a clear hierarchy and organizational structure. It does not have the equivalent of a person like Chad Griffin, a longtime gay rights activist who is the president of the Human Rights Campaign, or an organization like Freedom to Marry, the group that ran a state-by-state campaign to get gay marriage legalized.
And it’s not as if Clinton or the rest of America is not broadly familiar with the goals of Black Lives Matter. It is a movement started in the wake of the killing of unarmed black men by police. Reducing such killings is one of their goals.
But it’s not totally clear how to accomplish that goal.
Even Obama has acknowledged police-worn body cameras, one of Clinton’s main ideas, are not a panacea.
One of the movement’s informal leaders, Deray McKesson, recently published an op-ed in the Guardian that laid out a broad but vague policy agenda. He said the movement had spent the first year trying to illustrate clearly the racial problems in America, and its next phrase would be specific solutions.
“There is much to be done to tear down systems and structures that oppress people, like mandatory minimum sentencing, broken-windows policing and police contracts that provide officers with protections that ensure they will never be held accountable for the crimes they commit,” he wrote.
The most complicated part of the discussion between Clinton and the activists was that they in effect demanded the former first lady acknowledge and apologize for her personal role in America’s racial disparities.
“You and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused Health and Human Services disasters in impoverished communities of color to the domestic and international War on Drugs that you championed as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?” asked one of the activists.
Clinton seemed not as confident about her views on this.
At one point, she defended her husband’s policies on crime prevention and correctly noted many black leaders in the 1990’s had embraced those policies as well. But at another point, she used the phrase “us sinners,” seeming to take some blame herself.
Should Clinton apologize for her role in perpetuating the War on Drugs? This is a complicated question.
Her agency in that war is not as simple as the activists made it seem. Both parties helped push America toward the War on Drugs.
It would have been hard for Bill Clinton to be elected president without agreeing with tough-on-crime consensus of that era. And while Hillary Clinton was deeply involved in her husband’s administration, he, not she, actually signed the 1994 crime bill that the activists objected to.
On the other hand, politicians do at times admit they were wrong about something in the past. Clinton has said she regrets her vote for the Iraq War, Obama has admitted his administration rolled out healthcare.gov. very poorly. The president, will likely at some point say he supported gay marriage personally before he took that position publicly in 2012.
Bill Clinton has already said, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse," referring to the 1994 crime’s bill that many experts say helped perpetuate the problem of long prison sentences and mass incarceration of black men.
So in effect, the Clinton family has already apologized. Hillary Clinton can mention that in her next interaction with these activists.