Watch Black Lives Matter activists confront Hillary Clinton: "You don’t tell black people what we need to know"

"You, Hillary Clinton, have been in no uncertain way, partially responsible for this."

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published August 18, 2015 6:45PM (EDT)

Black Lives Matter activists have taken their grievances directly to the Democratic presidential candidates, with widely covered confrontations with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley at the progressive Netroots Nation conference last month. But it was a confrontation of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire last week that led to an actual conversation between the activists and the candidate (For his part, Sen. Sanders promised to arrange a meeting with BLM activists this week.)

On Monday evening's edition of "The Rachel Maddow Show," guest host Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with the two Black Lives Matter activists, Julius Jones and Daunasia Yancey of Massachusetts, who confronted Clinton after her town hall on drug abuse. Citing her "unique responsibility in the role in mass incarceration," Jones, of BLM Worcester, explained that what they'd "like to see from the Clinton campaign is an intentionality in how she deals with that, because right now, she's talking around it. There needs to be some ownership." Yancey, a BLM leader from Boston, said that when the activists traveled to New Hampshire to confront Clinton they had sought "a personal reflection on her responsibility for being part of the cause of this problem," but claimed that Clinton's response "wasn't sufficient for us."

And when asked about the response from supporters of Sen. Sanders after two women affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a planned Sanders speech in Seattle, Jones explained the movement's strategic decision to neglect so-called "respectability politics" in favor of more confrontational tactics was meant to "work the margins" but revealed a "covert anti-blackness" in the Democratic Party:

I think the rage that emerged out of the progressive liberal reaction to some of the shutdowns was indicative of this covert anti- blackness that exists in the Democratic Party. And it's important to say that there's a new kind of leadership that's emerging with the Black Lives Matter movement that's not wed to the Democratic Party.

And what ended up happening was people were perfectly willing to throw two black women under the bus for a white candidate who is the man with the fastest-rising privilege in the United States. He's drawing huge crowds and because Bernie Sanders couldn't speak, they were telling Black Lives Matter to not speak to allow him.

And it seemed like a disconnect to me because we as African-Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement are Americans. And political engagement is what it seems like folks are always asking of the black community. And then when it comes if it don't come the way they want it, it's sit back down, sister.

Watch Jones and Yancey discuss their conversation with Clinton and watch exclusive footage of the confrontation, via MSNBC:

Read the transcript of the full exchange between BLM activists and Clinton, via

QUESTION:  But your—you and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused Health and Human Services disasters in impoverished communities of color (inaudible) the domestic and international War on Drugs that you championed as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you know, I feel strongly, which is why I had this town hall today. And as the questions and comments from people illustrated, there’s a lot of concern that we need to rethink and redo what we did in response to a different set of problems.

And you know, in life, in politics, in government—you name it—you’ve got to constantly be asking yourself, “Is this working?  Is this not?” and if it’s not, what do we do better?  And that’s what I’m trying to do now on drugs, on mass incarceration, on police behavior and criminal justice reform. Because I do think that there was a different set of concerns back in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s. And now I believe that we have to look at the world as it is today and try and figure out what will work now. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out and that’s what I intend to do as president.

QUESTION:  Yeah. And I would offer that it didn’t work then, either, and that those policies were actually extensions of white supremacist violence against communities of color. And so I just think I want to hear a little bit about that, about the fact that actually while—

HILLARY CLINTON:  Well, I’m not sure—

QUESTION:  —those policies were being enacted, they were ripping apart families and actually causing death.

HILLARY CLINTON:  Now, I’m not sure I agree with you.  I’m not sure I disagree that any kind of government action often has consequences.  And certainly, the War on Drugs, which was started back in the ‘80s, has had consequences. Increasing penalties for crime and “three strikes and you’re out” and all of those kinds of actions have consequences.

But it’s important to remember—and I certainly remember—that there was a very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people. And part of it was that there was just not enough attention paid. So you know, you could argue that people who were trying to address that—including my husband, when he was President—were responding to the very real concerns of people in the communities themselves.


HILLARY CLINTON:  Now, I do think that a lot of what was tried and how it was implemented has not produced the kinds of outcomes that any of us would want.  But I also believe that there are systemic issues of race and justice that go deeper than any particular law. And part of what we have to do is address the laws. And then we’ve got to do a much better effort at being honest about the other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of young people and others having any hope and having any opportunity.

But I think that, as I said, some of this is coming about today because of the terrible instances of violence that we have seen across our country.  And I wouldn’t—you know, I wouldn’t in any way deny how powerful those have been and how they have to produce change.  So what you’re doing as activists and as people who are constantly raising these issues is really important.  So I applaud and thank you for that.  I really do.  Because we can’t get change unless there’s constant pressure.


HILLARY CLINTON:  But now, the next step—so, you know, part of you need to keep the pressure on, and part of you need to figure out, what do we do now?  How are we going to do it?

You know, one of the men who asked me the—asked me a question today, you know, was talking about how as a young man he was thrown out of his house and ended up in foster care.  He was, you know, abused, molested, then turned to drugs and alcohol.  Very common story, as you know, right?  And then, you know, he has a blackout and ends up that he killed somebody, ends up in prison.  And so he’s saying, like, “When do I get my life back?  I made a mistake, but when do I get my life back?”

So I think there has to be—in addition to the consciousness race, which you really have done the lion’s share of the work in bringing out—now we’ve got to figure out, okay, what are we going to do, and how are we going to do it?  Because the first speech I gave in this campaign was on mass incarceration.  It’s a problem I’ve been worried about, thinking about it.  The other day, a friend of mine asked me to come speak at his conference in Columbia, and I said, “You know, we can’t—we’ve got to change it.”  How do we change it, and how do we have the opportunities for reintegration that these young people deserve to have?

So we need a whole comprehensive plan—that I am more than happy to work with you guys on—to try to figure out, okay, we know black lives matter.  We need to keep saying it so that people accept it.  What do we do next?  What is our step?

QUESTION: I think that the next step, respectfully, and I have attempted to allow you, and I feel like we have allowed space for a nice conversation and it is 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 that you have offered a recognition that mass incarceration has not worked, and that it is an unfortunate consequence of government practices that just didn’t work. But the truth is that there is 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 then 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. 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 plantation system. It’s a similar thread, 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 is going to be a solution.

Because what the conversations that are happening now and why there is so much cohesion across the divide, the red side and the blue side, it’s because of money, right, we are spending a lot of money on prisons. We’re spending more money on prisons than we are on schools, but if we look at it from 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 going to go away. It’s just going to morph into something new and evolved.  You know, I genuinely want to know, you, Hillary Clinton, have been in no uncertain way, partially responsible for this.  More than most.  There may have been unintended consequences.

But now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction of this country?  Like what in you—not your platform, not the things you’re supposed to say—like, 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?

SPEAKER:  I just wanted to say apologies.  We have—

QUESTION:  I would really love for her to answer this question.  We’ve worked really hard.  We’ve driven so many hours.

SPEAKER:  We have to stop before—I’m just letting you know, we have a couple more answers left, more people (inaudible).  I’m not interrupting what you’re about to say, I’m just doing you a heads up on timing.

HILLARY CLINTON:  Well, it’s a very thoughtful question, and here’s a thoughtful answer.  And I can only tell you that I feel very committed to and responsible for doing whatever I can.  I spent most of my adult life focused on kids, from the Children’s Defense Fund and then 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 God-given potential.  And that’s where I’ve been focused.

And I think that there has to be a reckoning. I agree with that.  But I also think there has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward.  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.  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 turn to, you know, the women’s movement—we want to pass this and we want to pass that and we want to do this—problems are not 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 going to make, et cetera, et cetera.  Same with the gay rights movement.  You know, we’re sick of homophobia.  We’re sick of being discriminated against.  We want marriage equality.  We’re starting in the states, and we’re going to keep going until we get it at the highest court in the land.

So all I’m saying is, your analysis is totally fair.  It’s historically fair.  It’s psychologically fair.  It’s economically fair.  But you’re going to have to come together as a movement and say, “Here’s what we want done about it.”  Because you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, “Oh, we get it.  We get it.  We’re going to be nicer.”

That’s not enough– at least in my book. 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 have your thoughts about, because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do.

So yea, deal with mass incarceration. You know, it’s not just an economic issue — although I grant that some of you will see it like that. But it’s more than that and I think there is a sense that, low level offenders [inaudible] treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about 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, you know, proposing, supporting, condoning discrimination, segregation, etc. 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.

QUESTION: The piece that’s most important, and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can, but you don’t tell black people what we need to know. And we won’t tell you all what you need to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you–I’m just telling you to tell me.

QUESTION: What I mean to say is– 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.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well if that—

Q: And it’s a conversation to push back—

HILLARY CLINTON: Okay, Okay, I understand what you’re saying—

Q: Respectfully, respectfully—

HILLARY CLINTON: 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—

Q: 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—

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.


HILLARY CLINTON: Well I’m ready to get out and do my part in any way that I can.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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