August 18, 2018; Salon

The Black Lives Matter activists who got 15 minutes of face-to-face time with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire (where she was speaking on drug policy) released a video of their meeting. The BLM activists’ public stance was noticeably less confrontational with Clinton than it had been with Bernie Sanders, confronting the progressive Vermonter as he was giving speeches. Clinton’s people got advance warning of their intent to show up, giving her staff the ability to head them off at the entrance. Nevertheless, the meeting between the activists and Clinton was hugely interesting—and at times a bit tense.

The activists confronted Clinton for a “personal reflection on her responsibility for being a part of the cause of the problem” of mass incarceration due to her husband’s administration’s support for minimum sentences and other policies and her active promotion of those policies at the time. The ensuing back-and-forth revealed not simply differences in understanding between the candidate and her interlocutors, but different approaches or understandings of public policy.

Some of the Q&A, which you can read in its entirety here, is truly revealing, particularly around these issues:

  1. Hillary Clinton’s patience was tested, to be sure, and she reacted with obvious irritation at one point, suggesting that the BLM argument as she understood it would lead her to talk only to white people. That came in the context of her making strategic and tactical suggestions to the activists, which they clearly didn’t like, in the sense of a white leader telling black activists what they should do. The BLM dynamic centers significantly around respect, ending the tendency of Democratic politicians to patronize blacks and assume that they’re firmly in the Democratic column and satisfied with political bromides. If Clinton or Sanders or others find BLM direct actions disconcerting or irritating, leading them to lecture the BLM activists rather than hearing them out fully, problems could ensue.
  2. Like the confrontations with Sanders, the BLM activists wanted to see and hear personal contrition from Clinton. Sanders reacted with his policy proposals and his history as a civil rights activist, and Clinton did largely the same, with specific policy proposals (such as to “Ban the Box”) and a reference to her work with Marion Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund. The BLM protesters mentioned “hearts” a couple of times—understanding “what is in Hillary Clinton’s heart” and emphasizing the need to change the hearts of white people. Clinton didn’t buy the changing-hearts argument at all, suggesting that changing hearts is a longtime process and, ultimately, for some people impossible, but changing the laws in which people must operate is what has to happen.

There are two different worldviews in play in the BLM/Clinton meeting. The Black Lives Matter movement has taken on Bernie Sanders twice now and even recently showed up at a Jeb Bush speech in North Las Vegas. Bush has already called Black Lives Matter no more than a slogan and defended Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s “all lives matter” response. Nonetheless, we would guess that there’s not a lot of openness on the Republican side of the ledger to Black Lives Matter activism, given the policies, positions, and track records of several of the candidates. Democrats typically count on black votes, so what Democratic leaders do when Black Lives Matter contingents show up at their next public rallies, as we assume they will, will have meaning for how much of the black vote will turn out in November, 2016 to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate, and with what level of commitment, fervor, and energy.—Rick Cohen