When I asked a few activists from the immigration-reform movement, who have also confronted Clinton and other political leaders over the years, they had an even more critical reaction to her message. “She totally doesn’t get it,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream. “I felt very offended by her remarks.” Jimenez argued that personal storytelling and “changing hearts and minds” had been crucial in the push to spotlight the cause of Dreamers (immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children) and to ultimately gain protection from deportation through Obama’s executive action in 2012. Even though the movement started more than a decade ago, she said, “we weren’t able to achieve a policy change until 2012.”
Monica Reyes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Dream Iowa, said she had the opposite view of social progress as Clinton. “You need to change the culture before you can change laws,” she told me. Clinton’s attitude “doesn’t speak to the grassroots community,” Reyes said. “The grassroots is about people.” Another Dreamer activist who has confronted Clinton over immigration policy, Cesar Vargas, criticized Clinton for being “insensitive.” “She’s not understanding the people who are electing her,” Vargas told me. Achieving progress in women’s rights, civil rights, and other movements in history, he argued, “was about changing the hearts and minds.”
Who is right? “There’s no question that hearts can change, and it’s often social movements that create it,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told me. She pointed in particular to the gay-rights movement, where the experience in people coming out to their friends and family and the increased portrayal of gay couples in popular culture preceded the passage of laws legalizing first civil unions and then marriage. “People felt a ‘fellow feeling’ with gays and saw not as others in the same way,” she said, quoting a famous line from Teddy Roosevelt. Similarly, Goodwin said, it was the national broadcasts of white brutality toward blacks in the 1950s and 60s that engendered sympathy among whites for the civil-rights movement and led to the passage of landmark legislation under Lyndon Johnson.
Goodwin said presidents from Lincoln (“Public sentiment is everything”) to LBJ understood the need to mobilize broad support for policy changes. But she noted that elsewhere in her conversation with the Black Lives Matter activists, Clinton seemed to acknowledge the importance of raising public consciousness around an issue like race relations, even as she pressed them to have an agenda “ready to go” as did activists in the earlier generation of civil-rights leaders.
On that point, members of the movement appeared to take note. By Friday, a group of protesters had launched a website called Campaign Zero that featured a set of 10 proposals for policing reform, including an end to “broken windows” policing, increased training, expanded use of body cameras, and an end to the kind of “for-profit policing” that the Justice Department found in Ferguson. It also included a chart of where several presidential candidates in both parties, including Clinton, stood on the ideas. It might not settle the hearts-versus-laws question at the heart of her debate with the Black Lives Matter activists, but at least it gives both sides a place to start.