The Black Lives Matter movement is roiling the presidential race, forcing candidates to grapple with the thorny issue of racial inequality as the Democratic campaign tightens and the Republican primary is wide-open.
In Iowa, activists heckled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker this week. In Nevada, a group of multi-racial protestors recently disrupted Jeb Bush, sparking a counter “white lives matter” chant.
And Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton faced a group of activists during a sometimes tense meeting in New Hampshire that was captured on video and released late Monday.
The activists are emerging as a wild card on the 2016 presidential stump, popping up at rallies and town halls, threatening to derail carefully crafted events and forcing scripted candidates off their talking points. But perhaps the biggest question surrounding the movement is whether it will influence the political process without becoming part of it. Rather that throw its support behind one candidate or another, movement leaders say they plan to keep the pressure on everyone.
“There is no support for any of the candidates. Each candidate should expect to be held accountable. That is our political position in this current election cycle,” said Elle Hearns, strategic partner in Black Lives Matter movement, in an interview with CNN’s Ana Cabrera. “One of things they can do is expect to be held accountable and to be receptive to that accountability.”
While their tactics have been questioned – comedian Larry Wilmore said that black lives matter but black manners do too – the results are hard to argue with.
Already, they have met with the top three Democratic candidates to talk about criminal justice reform and other issues.
But Clinton’s recent engagement with the activists highlights how difficult it will be for any politician to find common cause with the sprawling and still-evolving movement.
One major point of contention between Clinton and the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement is Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which led to a massive uptick in the prison population, disproportionately jailing African-Americans. In her first major policy speech, Clinton acknowledged that the bill, sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and backed by the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, went too far, and she vowed to end the “era of mass incarceration.”
Bill Clinton has also said that the bill “cast too wide a net,” and that his administration got it wrong on sentencing provisions.
In the videotaped face-to-face meeting with Hillary Clinton, Black Lives Matter activists didn’t want to hear about her policy ideas. Instead, they sought a personal reflection on how she felt about the human toll of so many African-Americans being locked up as a result of policies she advocated.
“Her policy response – if it’s not addressing the anti-blackness inherent in some of the previous policies – then we are just going to see that thread continue,” Daunasia Yancey, founder of Black Lives Matter in Boston, said on CNN’s Wolf. “So that’s what we were looking to hear – what’s shifted, what’s changed for Hillary Clinton that’s going to make us believe that she can take us in a different direction in terms of race.”
Galvanized by the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, the group of activists have largely rejected the kind of top-down leadership that has defined most social movements. While the need for criminal justice reform animates their cause, they are also for pushing for a broad change in how African Americans are viewed and treated.
Writing in The Washington Post, Patrisse Cullors, said Democrats have, “milked the Black vote while creating policies that completely decimate Black communities.”
“No presidential candidate has ever centered their agenda around the worth of Black lives,” she wrote. “We are committed to redefining our worth as Black people and holding our country’s representatives accountable.”
In her meeting with activists, Clinton pressed them for a more concrete focus.
“We need a whole comprehensive plan — that I am more than happy to work with you guys on — to try to figure out, okay,” she said. “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?”
Clinton has yet to roll out a comprehensive plan on criminal justice reform, despite moves from her Democratic competitors. Martin O’Malley unveiled his plan last month while Bernie Sanders released a racial justice platform. He’s set to meet with activists soon.
“Folks are ready to discuss policy,” tweeted DeRay Mckesson in an exchange with Sanders.
The visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement comes as President Barack Obama has spoken out more on race.
So far, Obama has been spared the kind of public disruptions seen on the campaign trail this summer and has met with activists at the White House.
Still, there is some discontent with Obama’s failure to embrace the language of the movement.
“There is a level of disconnect that this current administration has,” said Elle Hearns, strategic partner in the Black Lives Matter movement in an interview with Cabrera. “They also haven’t declared that black lives matter either so that’s something that the current administration could also do. We haven’t seen that from them either.”