KEENE, N.H. — Standing beneath the hooded entrance to Keene Middle School, as rain hit the parking lot pavement early on Tuesday evening, the three activists exchanged a round of hugs, first with each other, then with the two videographers along to capture it all: another win for Black Lives Matter.
The small contingent, dressed in matching “Bulletproof” t-shirts, traveled from Massachusetts that morning with plans to stage a demonstration in the middle of a Hillary Clinton campaign event. As it turned out, the protest never happened. Instead, the group got 15 mostly private minutes with the candidate.
The activists — Daunasia Yancey, Julius Jones, and Vonds Dubuisson — declared the meeting a success. One, that is, for Black Lives Matter, not Clinton. Her answers, they told reporters afterward, had not been satisfying or sufficiently reflective.
Other Democrats, mostly Bernie Sanders, have already faced protests from Black Lives Matter on the campaign trail. The idea: to interrupt a candidate’s routine event or stump speech, and shift the conversation to questions about structural racism and police violence. This was Clinton’s first such encounter with the group whose name, often written as a one-word hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, has become the powerful avatar of a broader social and racial justice movement.
And what played out in New Hampshire over a single three-hour period, from 3:15 to 6:15 p.m., encapsulated the complicated dynamic between campaign, movement, and media that the other candidates have struggled to navigate in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, under the watch of the national press corps, Clinton took her turn at trying, and failing, to meet the expectations of the activists who have become increasingly influential figures in the Democratic primary.
So much so that when Yancey, Jones, and Dubuisson arrived too late to get into the event, a forum on mental health and substance abuse, Clinton aides tried hurriedly to get the activists into the campaign function they wanted to attend only to interrupt — setting off an unlikely sequence of events, shaped as much by the participants on the ground as by the coverage happening about them, in real time, on Twitter.
By 6:15 p.m., the result of this frenetic rush to manage the arrival of the three Black Lives Matter activists was, ultimately, three dissatisfied Black Lives Matter activists.
The organizers “didn’t hear a response” from Clinton to their direct concerns, according to Yancey, the co-founder of the group’s Boston chapter and the organizer leading the group in Keene. Fifteen minutes later, she said, “our time was up.”
Yancey said she and the other activists asked Clinton questions about her role, and Bill Clinton’s, in 1990s drug and crime policy — and “in perpetuating white supremacist violence.” The activists declined to relay Clinton’s answers — but they did express their disappointment with the exchange on the whole. “I didn’t hear a reflection on her part in perpetuating white supremacist violence,” Yancey said.
“I think she gave the answer she wanted to give.”
But even as the Black Lives Matter group described the various ways in which Clinton had fallen short, what remained unclear was a sharp outline of what an ideal encounter on Tuesday would have entailed. Clinton gave the activists time, they said, but not enough. She delivered “thorough” answers, they said, but not from “the arena of the heart.” She “validated” their points, they said, but “didn’t offer many of her own.” She did “acknowledge” her part in policies that haven’t worked — but not enough to give way to “a clarifying ability to, kind of, hone in,” said Yancey. “Because again, she’s a politician."
The two parties may have had different angles of approach entirely to the conversation on Tuesday: Black Lives Matter activists are generally less concerned with electoral politics — and more interested in fighting what they see as structural injustices, which they readily admit they may never live to see corrected.
“She was intentional about meeting us,” said Jones, a member of the Black Lives Matter group in Worcester, Mass. “She got something out of the meeting, that much is certain.”
Outside of Clinton’s appearance in Keene, movement leaders have been primarily focused on ongoing protests in Missouri. Police arrested movement protesters participating in direct actions that had been going on since the weekend to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson.
Meanwhile, even before the planned action in Keene, the Clinton campaign has started a low-key effort, led by LaDavia Drane, the African American outreach director, to engage activists connected to the movement. One such call was placed to the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, according to a source familiar with the communication. (Emails to Drane and the Clinton campaign regarding their outreach went unreturned on Tuesday.)
The call 30-minute call was largely introductory, and Drane promised to be in touch about a more in-depth policy meeting later this month, the source said. It was unclear if Clinton herself would participate.
Activists who have spoken directly with Drane, who last month also attended the Movement for Black Lives convention in Cleveland, describe the communication as a perfunctory exercise in “relationship building.” On calls with activists, Drane describes herself as a person whose career in politics has been defined by strong relationships. Her goal, eventually, she has said, is “to be a part of this community,” according to an organizer who has spoken with her.
A Democratic operative close to the Clinton operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that one challenge for Clinton aides is the sheer volume of principal activists in Black Lives Matter. The campaign has yet to reach out to even some of its most prominent organizers, such co-founder Patrisse Cullors, the person said.
A Clinton official said on Thursday that the campaign has tried to reach out to Cullors. Cullors said on Tuesday she has not been reached by the campaign.
Among activists, the confrontation in Keene was viewed as inevitable.
It needed to just happen already, as one put it. And it did — though in something of a controlled environment. “We did plan to come here and to participate in the larger event and to ask our questions in a public forum — and to hold her accountable to give answers,” said Yancey of the action as it was planned. “That isn’t exactly that happened.”
On Tuesday evening, in slow increments, Black Lives Matter began sharing information about the meeting on the Twitter account for the organization’s Boston chapter. First, a transcript of their opening question to Clinton. Then, on Wednesday morning, pictures from the meeting.
Two years after its founding, Black Lives Matter remains a dispersed and decentralized activist-led movement — but the organizers behind the group share a shrewd command of the social web that, in recent months, they’ve extended with no trouble at all to the national political press.
In Keene, the group was careful and deliberate about dealing with the press. After the meeting with Clinton, as soon as they stepped outside the school building and saw a group of reporters, Yancey quieted the group. “Shh,” she told Jones and Dubuisson, then asked the reporters if the three could huddle before taking questions.
The meeting with Clinton happened, in large part, because of a decision by activists to leak word of their plans to stage a demonstration. On the way to Keene, Yancey spoke with a writer from The New Republic to share “their talking points.” And that’s where it began. When the story went live around 3:15 p.m., Clinton aides started looking out for sign of the activists. But Yancey, Jones, and Dubuisson got there late. Clinton had already arrived, and the venue, as is custom, had been sealed by security.
The three activists, along with about 15 other attendees, were not able to get in, according to the campaign, because of orders from a fire marshal on site.
But when a reporter in Keene tweeted a photo of the scene — showing Yancey and the others standing outside the entrance to the middle school — word was that Clinton had barred the protesters from her event. The campaign then reached out to the activists, according to Yancey, because of the “Twitter conversation happening about us not being able to get inside.”
“And we were contacted by the campaign staff specifically regarding that conversation that was happening online,” she said. “They didn’t want that to be the end of it and they did want to get us an opportunity to speak to her.”
By then, the forum was underway. Voters shared stories of drug addiction and mental illness, and as Clinton nodded along, her aides were trying to figure out a way to get the Black Lives Matter crew inside. The campaign proposed removing five people from the room to get the activists and their videographers in under the capacity limits, according to Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton. The organizers declined the offer, he said.
Finally, an “overflow” area for extra guests was established in a classroom near the gymnasium. From there, Yancey, Jones, and Dubuisson watched the forum on a live-stream and prepared for their encounter: When Clinton visited the overflow room to greet the voters there and take pictures, the Black Lives Matter activists waited off to the side for Clinton to finish. After everyone else had left, they got the 15 minutes.
Reporters were not present for the exchange, despite an initial attempt by the Clinton campaign to have a small group of press inside the room. (A tenuous balance on their part, or so they would argue: send cameras in, and look opportunistic for hyping black outreach; or keep them out, and look deceitful for hiding a confrontation.)
The idea was shut down, Merrill said at the time, because the activists didn’t want media in the room. Yancey refuted that characterization. “We were not asked that,” she said. Merrill later said that, inside the overflow room, the organizers had asked the campaign’s photographer and videographer to stop taking pictures and video.
“They didn’t want others recording what they said,” he wrote in an email. “So given their insistence, I wasn’t going to march a group of press in the room to record and video.”
The activists plan to release their own recording of the exchange.
“We will,” Yancey said on Tuesday night. But first, they had to find a place to sit down and decompress. “That’s how it is after some actions.”
“You get outside and it’s just like: MEDIA,” she said, snapping her fingers in quick succession, like the sound of flashing cameras. “Like, ahh!”
This story has been updated.