Why Black Lives Matter activists are arguing with Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is the latest Democratic presidential candidate to be targeted by Black Lives Matter activists, who are challenging a party that needs their votes.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., last week.

First it was former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who were both interrupted by protesters at last month’s Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix.

Now it is Hillary Clinton, whose frank and at times testy discussion with three Black Lives Matter activists in New Hampshire last week has begun to make the rounds on the Internet and cable television.

On one hand, it seems like a head-scratcher: Why are black activists attacking Democratic presidential candidates, who would seem to be their closest political allies?

But the incidents speak to a deeper ferment among black activists, some scholars say. The Black Lives Matter movement that has helped catalyze sweeping changes in police policy nationwide since it began a year ago in Ferguson, Mo., is now setting its sights on the presidential race.

At this early stage, the effect is uncertain. But the black community has seen how high turnout in two presidential elections has contributed to victories for Barack Obama, while low turnout in two midterm elections has led to resounding victories for his Republican opponents in Congress. Black activists know the Democratic Party needs them, and the experience of the past year has only emboldened their resolve to be heard.

“I would say all the presidential candidates this year can be expected to be challenged on this issue,” Daunasia Yancey, who was involved in the conversation with Mrs. Clinton, told MSNBC.

The discussion between Clinton and Ms. Yancey and two other activists offered a revealing picture of how she and the activists disagree over tactics in the fight for equal rights.

In the video, Clinton essentially admonishes them for attempting to change hearts instead of laws.

“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said to the activists. “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,” she added. “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.”

Another of the activists involved in the discussion, Julian Jones, told MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry on Monday he thinks the encounter “moves the conversation on race in America to a newer and deeper level.”

The discussion itself points to a key fault line in current black political activism.

The question isn’t whether this new generation of black activism will have an impact, it is whether this activism will unfold inside the political system or outside it, says Clarence Lang, chair of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas.

“It seems that activists are poised to have an impact,” he adds. “What that impact will be I think is still an open-ended question.”

African-Americans are more than aware of the their electoral power, says Professor Lang, also author of the book, “Black America in the Shadows of the ’60s.” On her MSNBC show Monday, Ms. Harris-Perry said the Black Lives Matter movement “is here on the national stage to challenge those who want black votes. And guess which party really needs black votes?”

This renewed black activism is buttressed by growing support from other demographic groups. 

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of white Americans think the country needs to continue changing to give blacks equal rights, an increase from 39 percent last year. In addition, a new Gallup poll found that 53 percent of whites said they are satisfied with the way blacks are treated in the United States, a drop from 67 percent in 2013.

While Lang agrees that black people may feel empowered politically, that doesn’t necessarily mean they feel empowered as voters.

“Do [black] people feel empowered as voters? That their vote will make a difference in upcoming elections?” he asks. “I don’t know.”

This may be why the activists are using direct action and interrupting campaign events to get their message across, Lang adds. He says he generally agrees with Clinton’s assertion from the video that, at the end of the day, concrete policy changes are all that matter.

But he says he supports how Black Lives Matter activists are pursuing policy changes.

“My argument would be that you get policy changes by doing what these everyday citizens are doing,” he said. “You create a crisis.”

These actions have already yielded some changes in campaigning by leading Democrats.

A few weeks after the protesters interrupted Mr. O’Malley, he released a new criminal justice policy calling for fixes to “our broken criminal justice system,” including ensuring “that justice is delivered for all Americans – regardless of race, class, or place.”

And earlier this month at a campaign event in Seattle, Senator Sanders ceded the stage to protesters. Later, he hired Symone Sanders – a young black criminal justice advocate – as his national press secretary. The candidate is already incorporating some of her suggestions into his campaign, she told Buzzfeed.

Lang says that these responses from candidates suggest that, “over the longer term, or maybe even the intermediate term, we might see some concrete” policy changes.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why Black Lives Matter activists are arguing with Hillary Clinton
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today