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16 people who shaped the 2016 election: Julius Jones

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By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

In the course of 15 minutes last year, Julius Jones, a young Black Lives Matter activist from Massachusetts, did something that almost never happens in American politics: He engaged in a serious, intense but respectful dialogue with a major party presidential candidate on a matter of high principle and deeply felt emotion.

Millions of people have seen the video of the encounter among Clinton, Jones and his colleague Daunasia Yancey backstage at a campaign stop in Keene, N.H. The tape shows Clinton doing what she does best — listening and paying attention — but also shows why she has struggled in this campaign to connect to the young African-Americans whose votes she needs.

It begins with Yancey challenging Clinton on her responsibility, as first lady, senator and secretary of state, for the domestic and international “war on drugs” that “have caused health and human services disasters in impoverished communities of color.” Clinton gives the predictable answer — that times have changed and we have to look at what works now — to which Yancey tartly responds, “Yeah, and I would offer that it didn’t work then, either,” which puts Clinton on notice that she would have to work to get out of that room in one piece. Then Jones has his say.

There’s a thing politicians do in situations like this, sometimes called “grin-f***ing”: You smile and shake your interlocutor’s hand, promise to consider his or her points, and move on to the next question. You can almost see this about to kick in with Clinton, and one of her aides helpfully interjects that time is running short. But Jones is as persistent as he is polite, and for whatever reason Clinton decides to engage with him. He presses her on the issue of mass incarceration as a consequence of policies advanced by the Bill Clinton administration:

“You know, I genuinely want to know — you and your family have been, in no uncertain way, partially responsible for this, more than most, right? Now, there may have been unintended consequences. But now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction in this country? Like, what in you — like, not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say — like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before?”

Julius Jones during an interview with Yahoo News.
Julius Jones during an interview with Yahoo News. (Photo: Yahoo News)

The argument comes down to a question that can only be described as philosophical. Jones is arguing that racial progress requires a change in people’s hearts, a recognition by white America of its history of racism, while Clinton says it’s sufficient to just change the laws and policies. Give me a platform, she pleads with him, but he refuses; that’s letting her, and by extension white America, off too easily. It’s an extraordinary moment, and one that hopefully stuck with Clinton as it certainly did with Jones, who was unprepared for his sudden fame, which included appearances on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC and Larry Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” on Comedy Central.

As he tells Yahoo News’ Kaye Foley, his own life was in turmoil at the time: His mother had died a few months before, and he was being evicted from his apartment. The experience changed him, he says. He does feel differently about Clinton, but now believes, more strongly than ever, that she has “an even greater responsibility for undoing the damage of mass incarceration.” He has thought a lot about their disagreement, he says, and on reflection, he still thinks that confronting white prejudice has to take precedence:

“Like when people feel better about homosexual people, and gay rights, then the laws change to reflect that. That’s a heart campaign, right, and then it’s reinforced and codified through the law. But to say that could have happened without changing hearts I think is not true. In the history of the United States and its relationship with black people, we have changed the laws in many iterations and there’s still anti-black sentiment … and we’ve just gotten a new version of slavery every time.

“I think that when you don’t go after hearts, when you don’t talk to people who have hate actively in their hearts, you directly get Donald Trump.” — By Jerry Adler. Video produced by Kaye Foley .

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