POLITICS
08/13/2015 06:16 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2015

Hillary Clinton And Black Lives Matter Feel Each Other Out

"There's a critical opportunity before presidential candidates right now."
<span>Protester and social media activist DeRay Mckesson records the scene outside the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse,
Credit: Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Protester and social media activist DeRay Mckesson records the scene outside the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, Aug. 10, 2015, in St. Louis. Several protesters, including Mckesson, were arrested.

WASHINGTON -- Activists DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett recently spoke with Hillary Clinton’s policy director and others in the Clinton camp about police reform, criminal justice and other issues of importance to the black community, several people familiar with the chat told The Huffington Post.

The conversation took place about two weeks ago, sources said, and included at least one other figure from the Black Lives Matter movement besides Mckesson and Packnett. Over the past year, Mckesson -- a former teacher and school administrator in Minneapolis -- has become one of the most visible Black Lives Matter activists and has documented protests across the country. Packnett, a Teach For America executive and former congressional staffer, is a member of both the Ferguson Commission in Missouri and President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing

Mckesson has been openly critical of various presidential candidates, and has sought to hold them accountable for the way they've seldom addressed the unique issues facing black Americans. After attending Clinton’s official 2016 presidential campaign announcement in June, Mckesson left the event feeling underwhelmed.

Mckesson, one of dozens of demonstrators arrested this week during a protest outside the federal courthouse in St. Louis, told HuffPost that the discussion with the Clinton campaign revolved around police and criminal justice reform.

"The campaign is interested in connecting with a broad range of people in the movement," Mckesson said. "As campaigns develop their policy platforms, it's important that many people have opportunities to influence the process -- that this is not politics as usual."

"They made a commitment to reaching out, and I'm hopeful that as many people as possible can be heard and take an active role in shaping potential policies," he went on. "This is an opportunity to redefine how presidential campaigns engage with black communities and prioritize black life."

ColorOfChange, a prominent online activist group in the black community, has been helping the Clinton campaign navigate the sprawling and largely decentralized Black Lives Matter movement. "What I saw was an eagerness to reach out to as many people as possible," said Arisha Hatch, managing director of campaigns at ColorOfChange. She added that it can be "very difficult" to pin down which specific people or groups represent which elements of the movement.

Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told HuffPost that Clinton’s campaign has reached out to the movement. Cullors said she hadn’t spoken with the campaign directly, although other people on the team have. The two groups haven't had an official meeting yet, she said.

Clinton gave the first major policy speech of her 2016 campaign in late April, in response to the killing of Freddie Gray and the subsequent protests in Baltimore. In that speech, Clinton focused on criminal justice reform, specifically citing the experiences of black people. "There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts," she said. "There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes." In the same speech, Clinton condemned police militarization.

 At the Urban League in July, she outlined the economic disparities facing the Black community. "The opportunity gap that America is facing is not just about economic inequality.  It is about racial inequality. Now, that may seem obvious to you, but it bears underscoring because some of the evidence that backs it up would come as a shock to many Americans," she said. "Like how African Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage.  Or how, in 2013, the median wealth for white families was more than $134,000 -- but for African American families, it was just $11,000."

"She's been good. They've been good speeches. That's fine," Cullors said. "What this movement has been able to do is to push candidates to actually talk about black people. That’s huge. We didn’t even necessarily hear that from the Obama campaign -- from a black president."

Black Lives Matter is gradually making systemic racism a campaign issue for the Democratic presidential hopefuls. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running as a Democrat, on Sunday introduced a policy platform targeting structural anti-black racism. O'Malley has rolled out a framework for criminal justice reform, although it's less explicit in its discussion of racism than Sanders' platform.

Clinton, however, has not yet produced a comprehensive agenda focusing on police violence or mass incarceration -- issues that disproportionately affect black Americans -- even though she is currently the most popular candidate among black voters, with a favorability rate of 68 percent.

“In the next six months, up to the primaries, we really want to be challenging each candidate about their platforms, or lack thereof, specifically relating to a black agenda,” Cullors said. “We’ve gone far too long with president after president who doesn’t center the needs of black people -- and then, in fact, creates policies that completely decimate black communities.”

<span>Black Lives Matter and Black Immigration Network activists shout down the first of two Democratic presidential candidat
Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Black Lives Matter and Black Immigration Network activists shout down the first of two Democratic presidential candidates speaking at a Netroots Nation town hall meeting, Saturday, July 18, 2015, in Phoenix.

“Even after a year of protests and organizing, we still aren’t seeing the reforms necessary to ensure that black people are going to be safe,” Cullors went on. “We want to see something that’s very concrete, and on our end we’ll do our work to continue to lift up the issues that we think are most important, that are impacting black communities today.”

Clinton met with activists from the Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter on Tuesday after they were shut out of a campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire. The activists had planned to disrupt the event, a forum on substance abuse, in a manner similar to how Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Phoenix interrupted a Netroots Nation town hall last month. But in Keane, the activists were directed to an overflow room by U.S. Secret Service after being told the event was at capacity.

One goal of the confrontation, according to Cullors, was to challenge Clinton’s role in facilitating mass incarceration -- something critics say Clinton has done in part by supporting tough-on-crime initiatives.

“How do we know what she’s saying is going to translate into real-life changes for black people? We haven’t seen a racial justice agenda from the Hillary campaign,” she said. “We haven’t seen a criminal justice reform agenda from the Hillary campaign.”

Cullors said she doesn’t believe the activists were shut out of the Keane event because it was at capacity.

“They found out there was going to be a disruption, saw people with ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirts on, shut them out and then strategically put them in the overflow room,” she said. “It was a very political move. [Clinton] understood that... she would have gotten shut down, and she needed to play her cards right -- so she decided to meet with us. And that’s fine.”

The group met with Clinton for about 15 minutes after the forum ended. It was a short chat that mainly consisted of the former secretary of state making suggestions about how to advance the movement -- but not proposing policies that would address the movement’s concerns, according to Julius Jones, one of the activists in attendance.

“We were going in there with the understanding that we were combating systems, but we're also encountering a person with a higher level of responsibility for the way that the systems are today than most anyone in the presidential race,” Jones told The New Republic -- a reference to Clinton’s support of a 1994 crime bill signed into law by her husband, then-President Bill Clinton. “We went in there with that understanding, and chose to press her on her personal involvement and her personal feelings about her involvement, and what she was going to do to change it, given her husband's history of perpetuating mass incarceration and the War on Drugs.”

Democratic candidates aren't the only ones on whom Black Lives Matter activists hope to make an impact.

“Obviously, on the GOP side, we’re going to be challenging the ways in which the GOP has related to black folks for decades,” Cullors said. “We’re going to challenge [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush and the regime that he comes from, both his father and his brother who drove black lives into the ground. And we’re going to challenge all the Republicans -- the ones who are most visible.”

Packnett, one of the activists who spoke with Clinton's policy director a couple of weeks ago, told HuffPost that the current political moment is one of great potential.

"There's a critical opportunity before presidential candidates right now to not only engage with marginalized communities, but also to act on our behalf and act with our needs in mind," Packnett said. "I firmly believe that the opportunity has been created due to socially and politically involved people of color, particularly young people of color."

She told HuffPost that today's levels of social and racial inequity have been centuries in the making, and that the next president must set the country on a path to repair those inequalities.

"Incrementalism wouldn't be enough," she said.

Bush was interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists at an event in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Cullors said the group also plans to confront the real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is running for president as a Republican -- even though Trump has claimed that any activists who try to take his mic will be met with physical violence.

“This is coming from [someone] who may lead the country,” Cullors said. “I think it’s important as organizers that... no matter who the candidate is, Democratic or Republican, we have to challenge both sides.”  

This story has been updated to include information about Clinton's April 2014 remarks.

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