Activists from the Black Lives Matter movement challenged Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton to answer for criminal justice policies pursued by her husband’s administration and for the legacy of white privilege -- but Clinton told them to look for ways to change policies rather than trying to "change hearts."
Clinton listened and at times agreed with five members of the newly influential group during a tense discussion last week on a video released Monday night. But she also rejected one questioner's assertion that she is personally or directly responsible for systemic mistreatment of black people.
“I’m not sure I agree with you,” Clinton says carefully when one questioner told her that policing and imprisonment policies were imposed even though “they were ripping apart families and actually causing death.”
Clinton's campaign issued a statement Tuesday calling the discussion "one of many that the campaign will continue to have with a wide array of stakeholders in order to build on Hillary Clinton's policy proposals to help reform our criminal justice system and achieve racial justice."
In the video, Clinton concedes that government policies such as “three strikes you’re out” sentencing laws have had unintended and negative consequences. But some Clinton-era efforts were a response to demands within black communities for more attention to the ravages of drugs and violence, Clinton added.
“It’s important to remember — and I certainly remember — that there was a very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people. And part of it was that there was just not enough attention paid,” Clinton said then. “So you know, you could argue that people who were trying to address that— including my husband, when he was president — were responding to the very real concerns of people in the communities themselves.”
The activists released the video Monday night, nearly a week after their backstage exchange with Clinton at a drug policy event she had organized in Keene, N.H.
When one man suggested in the video that Clinton was being presumptuous by saying the Black Lives Matter movement should consider which policy prescriptions to support, Clinton gestured forcefully as she countered his assertion.
“Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems,” Clinton said facetiously, before the questioner interjected.
“That's not what I mean,” he says. “What I'm saying is, what you just said was a form of victim-blaming.”
At that, Clinton turns partly away from him and starts to shake her head “no.”
“Right? You were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts,” the man continues, before Clinton interjects.
“Look, I don't believe you change hearts,” Clinton says, chopping her hands in front of the man’s chest for emphasis. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You’re not.”
Still gesturing, Clinton continued: “But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential, to live safely without fear of violence in their own communities, to have a decent school, to have a decent house, to have a decent future.”
The tough tone, bordering on pedantic, was followed by more conciliatory words praising the movement for raising hard issues. Clinton stuck to her position that meaningful change happens through laws and policies, however.
“So we can do it one of many ways. You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts,” Clinton said. “But if that's all that happens, we'll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation. We will not have all of the changes that you deserve to see happen in your lifetime because of your willingness to get out there and talk about this.”
Two of the participants, Daunasia Yancey and Julius Jones, told MSNBC on Monday night that they were not satisfied with Clinton’s answers.
“What we were looking for … was a personal reflection on her responsibility for being part of the cause of this problem that we have today in mass incarceration,” Yancey said in a interview on The Rachel Maddow Show. “And so her response, really targeting on policy, wasn’t sufficient for us.”
"As Hillary has said, in order to implement real change, we must confront the deep-seated biases and racial injustice that still remains in our country today. We must not only change hearts, but we must do more to face hard truths in America," her campaign said in an unsigned statement. "We must also work together to change laws, raise awareness, and build a coalition to ensure every American knows what it means to be secure, safe and free."
The encounter in New Hampshire followed a complicated set of events that serves to illustrate the new movement’s prominence as a political voice for issues beyond outrage over the killings of black men by police. Black Lives Matter activists have attended and disrupted appearances by other Democrats seeking the party’s 2016 nomination, but until last week Clinton had not had a direct interaction.
Activists had said they planned to disrupt the Clinton town hall event, and her campaign was forewarned. The group arrived at the event after the doors were closed and the building was at capacity, the Clinton campaign said at the time. In an unusual gesture, the campaign scrambled to offer the group seats by displacing other audience members.
The group declined, but requested and received a private meeting with Clinton afterward, group members and the Clinton campaign said. If any other such constituency has been similarly accommodated by the five-month-old campaign, it has not become public.
The campaign did not move to stop the exchange from being recorded; although an aide interrupted once during the video to say Clinton’s time is running short, the back-and-forth continued after that.
“I thought it was a very respectful and frank conversation,” a senior Clinton campaign official said.
The official requested anonymity because, while the video is now public, the meeting had originally been private. Separate from this exchange, the Clinton campaign has been in regular discussions with several members of the loose-knit Black Lives Matter movement, the official said.
“It was a blunt conversation and, I think you can tell, at times uncomfortable,” the official said. “It was important to really engage. She agreed with them in some places and disagreed in others.”
The campaign makes no apology for Clinton turning the discussion away from her own role and toward a discussion of how to make changes now.
"[The question of] 'will you take responsibility for your role in white violence,'” was not something Clinton would or could address head-on, the official said.
Clinton, the official said, wants to know, “what can we do now, what are the policies, what are the ideas we need to focus on to move forward.”
The first policy address of Clinton's campaign was a lengthy examination of problems in the nation's criminal justice system. Clinton called for rolling back some of the 20-year-old prosecution and incarceration policies that former president Bill Clinton had helped install. Bill Clinton has also called for such reversals, arguing that the policies have not worked as intended. As first lady, Hillary Clinton had no direct role in enacting policy, but spoke supportively about the general approach.