NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev.—A day after the release of a video showing a sometimes-tense meeting between Hillary Clinton and activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, the Democratic presidential candidate again made her appeal to black voters, speaking about criminal justice, gun violence, and other areas of concern for many African Americans.
Speaking at a town hall in a neighborhood with a large black community, Clinton excoriated the Republican field for ignoring criminal-justice issues, saying that during their Aug. 6 debate there was "not one word about dealing with criminal justice and mass incarceration and that black lives matter," Clinton said, to applause. She answered questions on issues ranging from gun control to "Stand Your Ground" laws to voting rights.
The event directly followed new video footage Monday night of Clinton meeting with members of "Black Lives Matter," which has interrupted events with other presidential candidates in recent weeks to raise awareness about criminal-justice issues. In the video, which is from a private meeting Clinton held with the group's activists on Aug. 11, the participants repeatedly grill Clinton about her husband's role in creating the conditions for mass incarceration back in the 1990s.
"Look, I don't believe you change hearts," Clinton said of the group's hope to combat racism in the country. "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."
The former secretary of State spoke in North Las Vegas, a city with a large African-American population. (Census data from 2010 puts the black population at just under 20 percent here.)
Asked what she would do to strengthen gun-control laws across the country, Clinton said the current situation is "way out of balance" and that she is "not backing off of this fight," mentioning the shooting in Charleston that killed nine black churchgoers. "I don't see any conflict between the legitimate protection of Second Amendment rights and protecting people from gun violence from people who should never have guns in the first place," she said.
On another question, about "Stand Your Ground" laws around the country, Clinton said she thought many of those laws need to be "rewritten" and that reaching for a gun has become a "knee-jerk reaction."
"Yes, there is a role in extreme situations to defend yourself and defend your home, but unfortunately what we've seen too much of in the last few years is a spate of people who have reached for a gun before they really figured out what was going on," she said. "They've been much too eager to use that gun. We've seen it with policing and we've seen it with civilians."
In response to an inquiry about what she would do to reform the criminal-justice system, Clinton acknowledged that the policies of her husband's presidency were, in retrospect, not the right way to handle high crime rates at the time.
"On the federal level and certainly in states across America, decisions were made in the '80s and '90s to deal with what was at that time a very high crime rate that was particularly affecting poor people, people of color in the city," she said. "I think that a lot was done that went further than it needed to go, and so now we're facing problems with mass incarceration."
Two days before Clinton came to town, a top supporter laid the groundwork for her here. Just blocks away from where Tuesday's event was held, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke to a predominantly black audience about Clinton's record on issues relevant to them and helping to lay the groundwork for Clinton's visit.
"When Baltimore was still smoking, she spoke a truth about our criminal-justice system that is just now starting to be realized by many people in America," he said.
One man in the audience asked Booker why Clinton hadn't reached out to the black community in Nevada yet. "We, as black people, are we being taken for granted by the Democratic Party?" the man said. "Hillary Clinton came to Las Vegas twice and the community she spoke to exclusively was the Latino community. Personally, I have a problem."
"Hillary will be back to the state," Booker replied. "I know she's going to talk to white folks, black folks, Latino folks."
One woman at Clinton's town hall, a 72-year-old African-American widow, had the last word at the event. She stood up not to ask a question, but to praise Clinton, calling her "Superwoman" and "soft on the outside, steel on the inside."
And she offered up this praise too: "She's got the balls that the men don't have."