Last week, activists from #BlackLivesMatter Boston negotiated a meeting with Hillary Clinton at a campaign event, and, at the time, they promised to release video of the meeting as soon as they were able. That video has now been made public, and I want to reiterate what I wrote previously as context through which to view the footage of this meeting:
It sounds to me as though the activists had hoped primarily for two things from Clinton: 1. Personal accountability for the policies she's championed that have resulted in disproportionate state violence against black people; 2. To be heard.Having now seen the videos, I also want to observe that this interaction exposes the inherent tension between pursuing social justice through activism and advocacy and pursuing social justice through policy and politics.
They got the latter, but the former not so much. Politicians reflexively substitute policy for personal accountability, partly because it's a deflection for uncomfortable questions, but also because they're genuinely not used to being asked for personal accountability. The media fails utterly to hold politicians to personal account for failed and harmful policy. Even when politicians are asked about failed foreign policy votes, they aren't usually asked how they feel about it, even when their support resulted in people dying; they're just asked if they can admit they were wrong.
I hope Hillary Clinton gets that they were asking for personal reflection and accountability, and I hope she's thinking about how to talk about that, outside of and wholly separate from policy.
This is something every one of the white Democratic candidates should be doing: Talking about their own white privilege, about what it means to govern in a white supremacist culture, and how they feel and what they will do about dismantling that culture.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley et. al. need to understand that their personal accountability is important, because what people are asking for when they ask for it isn't self-flagellation; it's evidence of meaningful reflection and personal investment in expecting more. They are being asked if they can be trusted.
Changing minds and changing the law can and do act in concert, and often toward the same objective. (Frequently at radically different speeds.) But sometimes there is just unresolvable tension between the people who are seeking to change minds and people who are seeking to change laws, especially when policy is used by the latter as substitute for personal accountability.
Again, it's an issue of trust. And it's an issue of communicating (or not) that there is meaningful understanding of the underlying history in order to make sure that policy doesn't simply replicate the same oppression in a shiny new way.
The video was broken into two parts. Here is part one:
Video Transcript: Text onscreen: "A GOOD Exclusive. On Tuesday, August 11th, Hillary Clinton met with five #BlackLivesMatter activists behind closed doors after a campaign event in New Hampshire. In this candid video, the candidate is asked about her support for controversial laws that have led to mass incarceration in the United States."
Cut to Hillary Clinton, in a blue suit, standing in front of a blue curtain. Standing in a circle with her are Daunasia Yancey, a black woman who is the founder of #BlackLivesMatter Boston, a black man whose name I don't know, and Julius Jones, founder of #BlackLivesMatter Worcester. Jones, a tall, thin black man with a beard, stands directly opposite Clinton, and he is the one who addresses her. Throughout, Clinton nods her head and says, "Mm-hmm" as he speaks.
Jones: It's a pleasure and an honor to be in this dialogue with you. But I think that a huge part of what you haven't said is—you've offered a recognition that mass incarceration has not worked, and that is an unfortunate consequence of government practices that just didn't work. But, the truth is, that there's an extremely long history of unfortunate government practices that don't work that particularly affect black people and black families. And until we as a country, and the person who's in the seat that you seek, actually addresses the anti-blackness current that is America's first drug—we're in a meeting about drugs, right? America's first drug is free black labor, and turning black bodies into profit. And the mass incarceration system mirrors an awful lot—like the prison, the plantation system. It's the same—it's a similar thread, right? And until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to white people in this country, so that we can actually take on anti-blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don't believe that there's gonna be a solution. Because what the conversations that are happening now, and why there's so much, uh, cohesion across the—across the divide, of the red side and the blue side, is because of money. And we spend a lot of money on prisons! We spend more money on prisons than we are on schools, right? But if we look at it from a lens of, "Let's solve this financial problem," and we don't look at the greater bottom line, that African-Americans who are Americans are suffering at greater rates than most other people, every other people, for the length of this country, then it's not gonna go away—it's just gonna morph into something new and evolved. And I genuinely want to know: You and your family have been, in no uncertain way, partially responsible for, more than most—
Text Onscreen: "Hillary Clinton lobbied lawmakers to back the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 1994. The largest crime bill in history, it provided $9.7 billion in prison funding. From 1992 to 2000, the amount of prisoners in the U.S. increased almost 60%."
Jones: —now, there may have been unintended consequences, but now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that's gonna change the direction of this country? What in you—not your platform; not, not what you're supposed to say—how do you actually feel that's different than you did before? Like, what were the mistakes, and how can those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America—for a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?
A white man who is part of Clinton's team interrupts from offscreen, and they all turn and look at him. Jones interrupts him to say he really wants Clinton to answer the question, because they've worked hard and driven a long way to be there, and the man says he doesn't want to stop Clinton answering but wants to warn them about the time, because there are more people in the overflow room waiting to speak with her.
Clinton: Well, obviously it's a very thoughtful question and it deserves a thoughtful answer. And I can only tell you that I feel, uh, very committed to and responsible for doing whatever I can. I spent most of my adult life focused on kids, ah, through the Children's Defense Fund and other efforts to try to give kids—particularly poor kids, particularly, you know, black kids and Hispanic kids—the same chance to live up to their own god-given potential as any other kid. Ah, that's where I've been focused, um, and I think that there has to be a reckoning. I agree with that. Ah, but I also think there has to be some, uh, positive vision and plan that you can move people toward. I mean, once you say, "You know, this country has still not recovered from its original sin," which is true, once you say that, then the next question, by people who are on the sidelines—which is the vast majority of Americans—the next question is, "So whaddaya want me to do about it? What am I supposed to do about it?" That's what I'm trying to, ah, put together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it. Um, because, in politics, if you can't explain it and you can't sell it, it stays on the shelf.
Here, Clinton starts to get animated, as she describes the momentum that she has seen other social justice movements taking, as they move from advocacy to political action.
And this is now a time, a moment in time, just like the Civil Rights Movement, or the Women's Movement, or the Gay Rights Movement, or a lot of other movements, reached a point in time—the people behind that consciousness-raising and advocacy, they had a plan ready to go. So that when you turned to, you know, the Women's Movement—"We wanna pass this and we wanna pass that and we wanna do this..." Problems are not all taken care of; we know that. Obviously I know more about the Civil Rights Movement in the old days, because I had a lot of involvement in working with people, so they had a plan—this piece of legislation, this court case we're gonna make, et cetera et cetera. Same with the Gay Rights Movement, you know, we're sick of homophobia, we're stick of being discriminated against, we want marriage equality, we're starting in the states and we're gonna keep going 'til we get it in the highest court of the land.
Clinton focuses steadily back to Jones, pointing at him.
So, all I'm saying is: Your analysis is fair. It's historically fair, it's psychologically fair, it's economically fair. But you're gonna have to come together as a movement and say, "Here's what we want done about it." Because you can get lipservice from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium, and a million more like it, who are gonna say, "Oh, we get it, we get it. We're gonna be nicer!" Okay? That's not enough, at least in my book.
Yancey: Mm-hmm. Right.
Clinton: That's not how I see politics. So, the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical, but now, 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 know, you know, have your thoughts about, ah, because that's what I'm trying to figure out how to do. So, yeah, deal with mass incarceration— It's not just an economic issue, although, I grant you, some people see it like that. But it's more than that. I think there is a sense like, "You know, low-level offenders, disparity in treatment, we gotta do something about that." Um, I think that a lot of the issues about housing, and about, uh, you know, job opportunities, Ban the Box, a lot of these things, let's get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can. Because then you can be for something, in addition to getting people to have to admit that they're part of a long history in our country of, you know, either proposing, supporting, condoning discrimination, segregation, et cetera... Now what do we do next? And that's, that's what I'm trying to figure out in my campaign. So, that's what I'm doing.
* * *
And here is part two:
Video Transcript: Text onscreen: "A GOOD Exclusive. On Tuesday, August 11th, Hillary Clinton met with five #BlackLivesMatter activists behind closed doors after a campaign event in New Hampshire. In this candid video, the presidential candidate is asked to address the question of countering racial injustice in America."
There is crosstalk as Clinton's handlers try to wrap up the meeting, but Clinton stays put as Jones begins to speak again.
Jones: The piece that's most important—and I, I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can—like, if you don't tell black people what we came to do, then we won't tell you all what you need to do.
Clinton: Oh, I'm not telling you—I'm telling you to tell me!
Jones: What I mean to say is that this is and has always been a white problem of violence. It's not—there's not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.
Clinton: Well, if that—
Jones: That's the conversation—I want to push back [crosstalk] respectfully
Clinton: Okay, I understand. I understand what you're saying [crosstalk] 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—
Jones: That's not what I mean. That's not what I mean. That's not what I mean. But what I'm saying is like you, what you just said was a form of victim-blaming, right? You were saying what the #BlackLivesMatter movement needs to do to change white hearts is to come up with a policy position—
Clinton: No, I'm not talking about— Look, I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not gonna change every heart. You're not. But. At the end of the day? We can 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. So, we can do it one of many ways, you know. You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it, you may actually change some hearts. But if that's all that happens, we'll be back here in ten years having the same conversation. Because 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.
[crosstalk as the meeting is wrapped up]
Clinton: Well, I'm ready! I'm ready to do my part in any way that I can.
* * *
What this exchange reminds me of is Martin Luther King, Jr. trying to work with President Lyndon Johnson. Which was both a fraught and productive relationship.
People go into politics because they believe that policy is part (or all) of the solution to social issues. I genuinely don't think Clinton was telling Yancey, Jones, and the other activists that they need to come up with policy to rescue themselves from white supremacy (although I understand why Jones interpreted it that way, and I almost certainly would have done the same in the moment); I think she was saying, "Design the policy you want to see, because my role is a policymaker."
Which is right. But what the activists were asking her is to self-reflect on her role in white supremacist policies of the past, both in order to avoid replicating them, and also so she can use her bully pulpit to talk about her own change of heart (if there has indeed been one) in a way that might reach people, in ways and in numbers, that they never could. They were asking her to amplify their message.
And that can, and must, be the role of a president, too.
Clinton gets that. Because she said flatly that she needs to be able to explain and sell policy. But I'm not sure she got that's what she was being asked for more than policy. To get engaged with the theory, and to reach into herself and connect with it on a personal level.
Jones, Yancey, et. al. are making the point that policy never really changes anything without reflection and accountability for the biases it is meant to address. And it doesn't have to be every single mind that's changed, but it certainly does have to be the policymaker's mind that has changed.
That's what they were looking for. And they didn't get it.
@BLM_Boston has more information about and impressions of their meeting with Clinton on their Twitter feed.
I hope very fervently that Hillary Clinton sees this meeting as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it.