On Monday, activists from the Boston chapter of #BlackLivesMatter released, via Good Magazine, video of their private August 11 meeting with Hillary Clinton. The two clips feature activists Julius Jones and Daunasia Yancey confronting the Democratic frontrunner over her support for then-President Bill Clinton's crime policies, and Clinton trying to respond without fully accepting the premise.
In the first clip, Hillary nods and "Mmm"s uncomfortably through a three-minute question, at which point a press aide superfluously wastes another minute giving them a "heads up" on time. When Hillary finally did answer, she spoke candidly about the movement in political terms, asked for some policy suggestions, and gave some advice on harnessing the political moment:
Once you say, I mean, this country has still not recovered from it’s 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, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? What am I supposed to do about it?”
That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain and I can sell it. Because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on its shelf.
In the second clip, things get testy when Jones reacts badly to the unsolicited advice, and Hillary pushes back by passive-aggressively suggesting she should "talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems" if Jones doesn't want to share policy ideas. It was a remarkably real exchange that you'd likely never have seen in a public setting. When Jones accuses Hillary of "victim-blaming," she responds by forcefully advocating a practical approach:
Julius Jones: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like what I’m saying is what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. Right you were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts is to come up with policy changes...
Hillary Clinton: 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 going to change every heart. You’re not. 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. 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. 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.
It was a remarkably real exchange, and one that was rich with subtext and body language on both sides. For Clinton's part, she spread the wealth around with regard to blame for her husband's policies, and quickly became impatient with philosophical activist patter. On the surface, it seemed like Jones was more interested in extracting a pound of Bill Clinton-era flesh than securing concrete commitments from Hillary, but I think he, like many voters, is trying to gauge whether Hillary's focus on black issues in this campaign are strategic, or heartfelt.
But later, Jones and Yancey put a finer point on it, telling Melissa Harris-Perry that they want Hillary to "take ownership" of then-President Bill Clinton's crime bill, and that she has a "unique responsibility" for mass incarceration:
What's fascinating about this is that not long ago, fans of Bernie Sanders were using the same attack to deflect attention away from their candidate's rough relationship with Black Live Matter. Former Bernie Sanders spokesman David Sirota was all over Twitter wondering why the folks who were pushing Sanders toward his eventual racial justice platform weren't also protesting Hillary Clinton over her 90s-era "decisive support of mass incarceration policies," and pointing to this 1994 C-Span interview:
It has been a popular theme with the anti-Hillary left to conflate her politics with her husband's by calling them the "Clinton Dynasty," or in the case of Julius Jones, by laying the blame for Bill Clinton's crime bill on "your family," but is it fair?
At that time, she was First Lady Hillary Clinton, and it's important to bear in mind that our country's history makes it impossible to judge whether aa male spouse would ever be expected to undermine a female president's policy agenda. It's also important to note that her "decisive support" consisted of a one-minute snippet from a 30-minute interview that was almost entirely devoted to health care reform. I suppose it's fair to say that Hillary Clinton enabled, in a small way, her husband's policies, but it's a stretch to say that a first lady's brief comments give her "unique responsibility" for a bill that passed Congress with near-unanimous support.
The truth is that mass incarceration and the escalation of the War on Drugs are the result of both the bad political bargain that Democrats have offered black voters for decades, that a little tough-on-crime pandering will keep them in power to fight for other priorities, and genuinely misplaced efforts. As Hillary pointed out to the activists, there was a genuine crime problem in the early 90s, and some genuinely unintended consequences that arose from trying to solve it.
But when it comes to her own record on crime, the way in which every male candidate is judged, Hillary Clinton is pretty decent on crime. For example, during her first senate campaign, back in 2000, Hillary came out against the drug war, and in favor of diversion programs:
Moderator: What is your approach to the “Drug War”?
Hillary Clinton: I have spoken out on my belief that we should have drug courts that would serve as alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system for low-level offenders. If the person comes before the court, agrees to stay clean, is subjected to drug tests once a week, they are diverted from the criminal justice system. We need more treatment. It is unfair to urge people to get rid of their addiction and not have the treatment facilities when people finally makes up their minds to get treatment.
In 2007, she supported eliminating drug sentencing disparities, favored diverting non-violent drug offenders away from prison, and co-sponsored a law that helped ex-convicts reenter society. So far in this campaign, Hillary has been far ahead of her competitors in proposing policies to deal with police violence, and that was before anyone asked.
This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is necessarily the candidate who will achieve all the things that Black Lives Matter want, or even that black voters are wrong to be skeptical of her. Even when she's been right, Hillary hasn't exactly been blazing trails, and her 2008 campaign left a deep rift with many black voters. But if Hillary Clinton is going to be judged on her record, it should be on her record, not her husband's.