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Hillary Clinton Has Tense Exchange With #BlackLivesMatter Activists, as Black Issues Shape the 2016 Race

Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens as Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones addresses her on issues surrounding mass incarceration after a recent campaign event in New Hampshire.  YOUTUBE/GOOD

Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens as Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones addresses her on issues surrounding mass incarceration after a recent campaign event in New Hampshire.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists, underscoring the centrality of the Black-led movement and its issues to the Democratic campaign.

The exchange between the politician and the activists was caught on a cellphone camera and shared with MSNBC.

Initially, the activists were barred from entering the New Hampshire event, but were then granted entry after arranging a backstage meeting with Clinton.

“I don’t believe you change hearts, you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate,” Clinton told Julius Jones, an activist from Worcester, Massachusetts.  “You’re not going to 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.

Clinton then suggested that laws were necessary to achieve substantial change.

“You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts,” she 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.”

The #BlackLivesMatter activists pressed Clinton on the years in which her husband, President Bill Clinton, enacted draconian anti-drug policies that accelerated mass incarceration, a reality for which the former president apologized. During those years, the activists noted, the federal government spent $19 billion for prisons and cut $17 billion from housing. The activists blamed both Clintons for the policies and their consequences.

“What were your mistakes and how could those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America?” asked Jones.

A Clinton campaign staffer interrupted the testy moment in the conversation to inform the activists they were out of time.

“I feel very committed to and responsible for doing whatever I can,” Clinton said. “I have spent most of my adult life focused on kids through the Children’s Defense Fund and other efforts to try to give kids, particularly poor kids, particularly Black and Hispanic kids, the same chance to live up to their own God-given potential as any other kid. I think that there has to be a reckoning, I agree with that, but I also think there also has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward.”

Clinton admitted that “three strikes” and other tough on crime sentencing measures have had unintended and negative consequences. However, the candidate added that some Clinton-era measures were a response to demands from the Black communities to address violence and drugs.

In the videotaped exchange, the #BlackLivesMatter activists reportedly sought Clinton’s personal reflections on the human impact of mass incarceration on Black people, rather than policy points. Boston organizer Daunasia Yancey told MSNBC that “her response targeting on policy wasn’t sufficient for us.” Jones added, “At the same time she was also ducking personal responsibility for the role that her and her family played in it too.”

Black Lives Matter activist Elle Hearns told CNN that she too, believed Clinton was dodging the issues.

“She was very defensive,” Hearns said. “She was very intentionally suggestive of what other people could do as opposed to what she specifically could do. She was challenged to change hearts and minds and she said she doesn’t believe in that and, so that is, a majority of the time, the reaction that we’ve seen from the progressive movement towards these calls to action.”

The Clinton meeting comes as rival candidate Bernie Sanders plans to meet with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson.  Mckesson tweeted to Sanders that his racial justice platform has “promise” and expressed an interest in meeting with the candidate. Two hours later Sanders agreed to met with Mckesson and other activists.

Mckesson also had praise for Martin O’Malley’s policy proposals, while pointing out the disconnect between the current offerings of the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, and his policies while in office.  In light of the Freddie Gray death in police custody, O’Malley’s policing tactics while mayor have faced criticism for contributing to community mistrust of the police and exacerbating tensions.

News of the Sanders meeting comes as Cornel West announced his endorsement for the presidential candidate. Artist Talib Kweli recently argued in an interview on HBO’s Real Time with Blll Maher that, “Bernie Sanders is somebody who, just because someone has a record of civil rights, doesn’t mean they are automatically entitled to the Black vote.”

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