Hillary Clinton had just been feted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. She was warmly embraced by Rep. John Lewis. And Andrew Young was among other civil rights leaders who cheered as she strode to the stage at a Clark Atlanta University gym to talk about injustice in the America’s prisons system.
Just as Clinton tried to trumpet the civil rights icons who had her back, about a dozen young African-American protesters stormed into the room from a back door and chanted “black lives matter” while she plowed ahead with her speech.
The showcase of her first public visit to Atlanta this campaign was to announce her criminal justice proposals, but the under-card was to be Clinton highlighting the endorsements of Lewis and other influential black leaders who had switched their support from her to Barack Obama in 2008.
What it turned out to be, though, was a reminder that a younger generation of black activists still hasn’t fallen in line behind Clinton even though many of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the movement have embraced her presidential bid.
And the spectacle of the protest – which continued for about 10 minutes even after Lewis and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (and apparently R&B star Usher) tried to quiet them – overshadowed the public policy proposals that Clinton unveiled during her speech.
All the while, the vast majority of the 2,100 students who attended tried to drown out the demonstrators, sometimes chanting “let her speak.” The crowd broke out into a raucous applause when they were pushed from the room, and afterwards several students told reporters they were disappointed by the protest.
Clinton’s most serious competitors have been plagued by the same criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has failed to quell concerns from minority voters as he tries to expand his base of mostly white, liberal voters. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” while discussing police violence.
But with Vice President Joe Biden out of the race, making Clinton the clear Democratic frontrunner, her struggle to bridge the generational divide is magnified.
After the event, black leaders were careful not to be too harsh toward the protesters. The historically black colleges clustered around Clark Atlanta played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement, and the gym was located off a street known as Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard.
Lewis told CNN that the students “represent another time, another era. They were trying to make a point, to dramatize what they’re concerned about.” State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, was among a handful of people who followed the protesters out of the room to make sure they weren’t being mistreated.
The students behind the protest said they wanted Clinton to more directly address the policing practices behind the series of shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers that have put places like Ferguson, Mo. in the national consciousness.
“We don’t want to hear the rhetoric. We know the severity of the economic disparity. She’s calling it out like it’s news to us,” said Avery Jackson, a Morehouse College junior. “She’s using rhetoric to cover up the issues that are really at hand. We want her to push back harder.”
Another protest organizer, Spelman College senior Shiranthi Goonathilaka, said many students were disappointed that Clinton chose to deliver a “lecture” to the students rather than a town hall meeting or another type of discussion.
“We are not satisfied with what Hillary has offered black people in America,” she said. “Prominent black leaders, and a lot of them are based in Atlanta, are just OK with what Hillary is giving us. But we want more from her than what other leaders are expecting and willing to take.”