Hillary Clinton held a tense and frank meeting with Black Lives Matter activists last week, at times disagreeing with the five advocates at the meeting but also accepting culpability for some of the problems in the criminal justice system.
Much of the disagreement, shown in two new videos from GOOD Magazine, was rooted in strategy. Clinton criticized the Black Lives Matter movement — which seeks to undo racial disparities in the criminal justice system — for not proposing a specific law or policy change to carry out its goals.
"Your analysis is totally fair. It's historically fair. It's psychologically fair. It's economically fair," Clinton said, in response to a question that blamed her in part for mass incarceration. "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 as 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."
One of the activists responded, "I say this as respectfully as I can, but if you don't tell black people what we need to do, then we won't tell you all what you need to do. This is and has always been a white problem of violence. There's not much that we can do to stop the violence against us." He added, "What you just said was a form of victim blaming. You were saying what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts is a policy change."
Clinton replied, "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 can 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."
But much of the tension also came because Black Lives Matter sees Clinton as partly culpable for the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And that goes back to a law President Bill Clinton signed into effect in 1994: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
Clinton lobbied for a law that perpetuated mass incarceration
The Clintons played a role in mass incarceration. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Clinton lobbied for and her husband signed into law, imposed tougher prison sentences and increased funding for prisons, among other changes.
The law helped continue the explosive growth of the prison population through the 1990s:
And a disproportionate number of the growing prison population was black:
In the past few years, criminal justice experts have come to agree that the law was overly punitive. Although mass incarceration contributed to some of the crime drop since the 1990s, many experts say that very early on, incarceration reached the point of diminishing returns — there are only so many serious criminals out there, and after a certain point the people getting put in prison aren't people who'd be committing crime after crime on the street. As a result, there are a lot of people in prison who don't need to be for the sake of public safety.
The Clintons have admitted that they made the problem worse. In her meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, Hillary Clinton referred to herself as one of the sinners. Earlier this year, Bill Clinton acknowledged that he contributed to the problem, stating, "I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it."
But while the Clintons may apologize, it's hard for activists to look past the fact that these two powerful Democrats were a big part of the problem in the first place. And that's sown some distrust in the Clintons that will be very difficult to fully repair.