Reflections on Meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton, and the #DemDebate

DeRay Mckesson
Oct 15, 2015 · 11 min read

I recently joined protestors and activists in meeting with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to discuss the #BlackLivesMatter movement and policy proposals, anchored in #CampaignZero, to end police violence.

We have also requested meetings with Martin O'Malley, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. In general, we are open to meeting with any candidate seeking to be the next President to discuss these ideas.

While police violence is a key issue to the movement, it is clear that there are a range of issues important to blackness that are beyond police violence and/or criminal justice. In these conversations with Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, we began by focusing on police violence and then broadened the scope of the conversation.

For these meetings we request at least one hour with the candidate and at least 30–45 minutes with the candidate’s staff after the candidate leaves. The goal is to both influence the candidate and their staff, who are often best versed in the details of specific legislation or policies.

In preparation for meeting with the candidates, we review their previously stated policy positions and the campaigns published platform so we can develop specific questions on focused topics that support a robust discussion.

Bernie Sanders has released a Racial Justice Platform.

Hillary Clinton has published initial drafts of a Criminal Justice Platform & Voting Rights Platform.

Note: Our preparation documents linked below are not meant to be exhaustive nor prescriptive, but instead, are meant to support protestor participants as the conversation flows. We have preparation meetings in advance of the official meeting with the candidate in order to talk about the issues deeply. Also, the preparation documents are not shared with the respective campaign until the meeting has concluded.

Bernie Sanders


We met with Sen. Sanders for an hour and met with his staff after he left for another 45 minutes. Here is the preparation and reflection document, which includes notes from the meeting itself, used for the meeting on September 16th.

Topics Covered:

Community Policing

In the opening conversation of the meeting, Sen. Sanders commented that the police often make people feel safe in many communities, to which we replied that this is not true in many black communities.

We pushed him to re-think “Community Policing” as this term suggests that the police should be ever-present in black communities — patrolling, tutoring, playing basketball, etc. — sustaining the notion that police presence is what makes people safe. We noted that this idea of “Community Policing” is rarely, if ever, applied to white or wealthy communities — that if these communities had an ever-present police presence, it would be unacceptable.

We also pushed him to think of the most affluent or white community in most cities and to think about why it is safe — it is likely that these spaces are safe because they are resourced and empowered differently, not because of an ever-present police force.

Income vs. Wealth

Sen. Sanders has a long history of discussing economic justice and often focuses on income. We pushed him to think about the racial wealth gap as a clearer indicator of ending inequity. While black families make about 60% as much income as white families, they only have 7% of the total financial resources (i.e. wealth) of white families, making it much harder to endure financial crises and make critical investments in higher education and homeownership. We proposed solutions to close the wealth gap including Baby Bonds, child savings accounts, IDAs, and homeownership programs.

We noted that, for example, bringing families below the poverty line up to the poverty line still means that these families are likely living paycheck-to-paycheck and that a focus on income and not wealth masks the depth(s) of inequity.

Sen. Sanders listened, pushed us on some of the data to gain clarity, and agreed with us on this point in the end.

Broken Windows Policing

We talked to Sen. Sanders about ending the policing of “quality of life” offenses (i.e. loitering, public drinking, disorderly conduct, etc.) and mental health crises, a practice which disproportionately impacts black and brown communities. We discussed approaches to addressing these activities that do not center the police such as deploying mental health providers or social workers to respond to these situations.

Sen. Sanders agreed with the need to invest in mental health services and responses to crises situations.

Marijuana Legalization

We talked to Sen. Sanders about making sure that people of color, who have been disproportionately criminalized in the informal marijuana economy, do not get locked out of the emerging legalized marijuana economy because of criminal records tied to possessing or distributing marijuana.

Sen. Sanders asked for additional clarity on some key points and noted that he had not heard this argument in this way before and would consider it.

Legislative Avenues for Racial Equity

We pushed Sen. Sanders to think about how federal legislation can include formulas or other prescriptive measures to ensure that the legislation meaningfully impacts the lives of black people. In this context, we discussed his support of job-creation legislation and pushed him to consider robust language that focused on ending the joblessness of black and brown people.

A jobs bill that creates 19 million jobs is important. But a specific focus on racial equity is needed to ensure that people of color will actually benefit from such a bill. A range of barriers (racial bias in the hiring process, discrimination based on past criminal records, and lack of access to housing, childcare, education, and transportation) could prevent black people from being able to participate in this program unless intentional measures are taken to ensure access.

We had spirited discussion about legislative avenues for racial equity and he heard us in the end.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

We pushed Sen. Sanders to take a position on civil asset forfeiture given its economic implications for people of color, who are disproportionately likely to have their cash and property confiscated by police without due process.

He heard us and indicated that he would take action to end this practice. In the days since that meeting, he came out against civil asset forfeiture and his campaign added a section to their Racial Justice Platform focused on this issue.

Reaction to Sanders during the #DemDebate

It was important that Sen. Sanders noted that Black Lives Matter and that he highlighted institutional racism and the need to reform the criminal justice system. Also, his statements during the debate reflected the presence of a strong initial platform that I look forward to see expanded in the coming months.

I look forward to Sanders using more language and enhancing his platform to highlight an affirmation that the presence of resources (jobs, housing, etc.) in communities leads to safety without depicting policing as being central to securing safety in black communities.

Hillary Clinton


We met with Secretary Clinton for 90 minutes and with her staff for another 30 minutes after she left. Here is the preparation document we used for the Oct. 9th meeting.

Topics Covered:

Federal vs. State and Local Role in Policing and Criminal Justice Reform

In our conversation about the kinds of actions HRC would take as President to reform the criminal justice system, Clinton commented that many aspects of the criminal justice system are primarily managed by state and local governments.

We pushed her to develop a criminal justice platform that leveraged the power that the federal government has to set the national agenda, model effective policy, and push state and local governments into alignment with that vision, and intervene where necessary to secure the rights and liberties of black people. Later in the meeting, she articulated a national model for policing as one such idea.

Community Policing

The meeting began with a discussion of the role of the police in which Clinton commented that the police often make people feel safe in many communities, to which we replied that this is not true in many black communities.

We pushed her to re-think “Community Policing” as this term suggests that the police should be ever-present in black communities — patrolling, tutoring, playing basketball, etc. — sustaining the notion that police presence is what makes people safe. We noted that this idea of “Community Policing” is rarely, if ever, applied to white or wealthy communities — that if these communities had an ever-present police presence, it would be unacceptable.

We also pushed her to think of the most affluent or white community in most cities and to think about why it is safe — it is likely that these spaces are safe because they are resourced and empowered differently, not because of an ever-present police force.

Government vs. Community Role in Addressing Racial Inequities

During our conversation, Clinton used a metaphor of the “three-legged stool” to describe a partnership between the federal government, the private sector, and the community. The community’s role in “stepping up” and “taking the initiative”, in her view, was essential to securing the benefits of support offered by the federal government.

We pushed her to strengthen her description of what the federal government will do to honor its responsibility in this partnership and to acknowledge that racism continues to block access to political and economic institutions that no amount of “hard work” can overcome. In the end, she heard us. I look forward to seeing her platform address the role that the federal government must play to ensure the rights and protections of historically disadvantaged communities.

A New “New Deal”

We discussed the ways in which black communities have not been recipients of important social investments such as the FHA housing loans offered exclusively to white families during the New Deal era. We pushed HRC to champion a new “New Deal” for black people that would target investments to black communities and close the racial wealth gap.

Clinton responded by proposing to make a broader investment targeting low-income communities and communities of color. We continued to push her to be more targeted, more focused on addressing the particular history of discrimination and disinvestment experienced by black people and noted that well-intentioned programs that are not targeted specifically for black people, such as Affirmative Action, have disproportionately benefited other groups such as white women.

We had a spirited discussion on this topic and it was interesting to hear her reference a new “New Deal” during the first democratic debate. I look forward to seeing how her platform incorporates these ideas.

Legislative Avenues for Racial Equity

We discussed using funding formulas as a means to direct resources to disinvested black communities. HRC shared with us that she supported this strategy and had pushed for the 10–20–30 formula presented by Rep. James Clyburn during the debate of the Recovery Act. This design would disproportionately award formula funding to communities suffering high poverty rates for the past 30 years, the vast majority of which are communities of color.

Police Militarization

We pushed HRC to clarify her position on demilitarizing the police, pushing her to go beyond ending the use of federal funds by police departments to buy military equipment. Specifically, we pushed her to end the 1033 program transferring military equipment at little cost to police departments, expand the scope of prohibited equipment under the Obama administration’s existing restrictions to include MRAPs and to take action to get police departments to return the military weapons they’ve already received.

She indicated that she wanted to do more research before she can take a position on these issues.

Limiting Police Use of Force

We discussed strategies to limit police use of force, including establishing a national use of force standard that limits the use of deadly force to situations where it is strictly unavoidable to protect life. Clinton spoke about the need to create a national model for policing that would include standards and training. She committed to exploring what that national use of force standard should be and indicated that her goal was for the police to use “the least amount of force necessary” in interactions with the public.

Investing in Alternatives to Policing

In the context of our conversation about limiting police use of force, one approach we discussed was limiting the role of police altogether by deploying other stakeholders (i.e. mental health providers, social workers, etc.) to respond to a range of situations that the police currently respond to. HRC committed to investing in these alternatives and proposed to create an alternative hotline for people to request an emergency mental health professional to respond to mental health crisis situations.

Ending Violence Against The Black Trans Community

We discussed the epidemic of violence against black trans individuals, offered solutions such as the decriminalization of marijuana and sex work, and pushed HRC to adopt specific solutions to this issue. HRC proposed to take action to ensure those responsible are brought to justice and indicated she was exploring the various considerations for decriminalization (i.e. for youth or adults as well, etc.).

Ending Private Prisons

We pushed HRC to take a position on private prisons and noted that she had received campaign contributions from the private prison industry. HRC took a strong position in favor of using federal funds to close private prisons. It was unclear whether she will continue to receive campaign contributions from the private prison industry.

Reaction to Clinton during the #DemDebate

When asked about efforts she would make toward racial justice and what she called “acceptable policing,” Sec. Clinton mentioned the President’s Task Force report as containing many of the solutions that should be implemented. I was glad to hear this document referenced in her answers about supporting the black community, even though she did not affirmately state that Black Lives Matter as many of the other candidates did. In the end, bold action will be required to pursue that direction, and even then, those will only be the first of many necessary steps.

Sec. Clinton also referenced the need for a “New Deal,” a topic we discussed in our meeting with her, though we pushed for this New Deal to have a focus on black people. It will be interesting to see whether she continues to use this language and what kinds of policies will ultimately be included in this initiative.

Sec. Clinton advocated in the debate for more police body cameras, which could make a difference if used with the right combination of policy protections. I look forward to hearing how she intends to ensure these body cameras are used as a tool for accountability and not a tool for surveillance in our communities.

In all, the debate highlighted the need for Sec. Clinton to release a robust and comprehensive criminal justice and/or racial justice platform so that we are clearer about her stance on the range of issues that have been in the national dialogue for the last 15 months.


We need to continue pushing lawmakers to adopt platforms that reflect the understanding that the safety of communities is not predicated on the presence of police. Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton were willing to be pushed and have begun incorporating feedback from the meetings into their platforms: Senator Sanders incorporated civil asset forfeiture and Secretary Clinton has begun to discuss a new “New Deal.”

Senator Sanders has an opportunity to continue to make his Racial Justice Platform more robust in ways that match the urgency of his spoken words. Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to release a platform focused on race that is informed by her career in politics and the vantage that this ostensibly offers.

We will continue to demand actionable plans from the candidates that directly address issues of race, equity, and criminal justice, and will hold them accountable once in office.

We can live in a world where the police don’t kill people.

We can live in a world where justice exists.

We will fight for this world.

We will win.

DeRay Mckesson

Written by

I will never betray my heart. Curator, connector. TFA. Educator. Bowdoin alum. Protestor. Snapchat: derayderay. IG: iamderay.

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