Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Day I Shook Bill Clinton's Hand

“We can’t hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to name them, and own them, and then change them.”
Hillary Clinton, June 20, 2015

Although as someone who remembers the Nineties well, I know enough to blame the Republican Senate for many of the letdowns of Bill Clinton’s presidency, I did have to cross some picket lines in my mind to get excited about going to see him speak. However, as both he and Hillary have done so much to support the poor, to fight for women’s rights, and to bring GLBT rights into the national conversation, I was jumping-up-and-down happy to show up first thing in the morning as one of the volunteers for the April 7th event.

I phone-banked for President Obama, but this was my first time volunteering in support of a big event. When I got there and saw the other volunteers, I almost wept for joy. My facebook feed had made me feel like quite the lonely feminist, but here was a beautiful, diverse, welcoming team of mostly African American people from around the city and from the campaign itself. One volunteer was wearing a shirt that said, in rainbow letters, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” and I knew I’d found my people.

My team was given clipboards so we could have people fill out their tickets to get inside. Two hours before they were to open the doors, I was sent around back of the building to help direct anybody who was lost. My directing partner was an African American gentleman who’d just retired. He told me that he and his wife love trading off the remote these days, but today he had to get out and do something. We groused about the rain together. He spoke passionately about how relieved he’ll be when President Obama is out of office, because he isn’t treated with the respect that a President deserves. We agreed that Hillary Clinton would have to go through similar assaults on her dignity, that it would be hard.

He and I were stationed near a friendly Secret Service agent who kept us updated on the weather. As it blustered and rained, we signed happy people in. One lady was wearing her T-shirt from the first Clinton presidency, the first time I voted, when I was eighteen.

After we were done helping people in, I said goodbye to my partner and switched clipboards so I could help sign people up to phone bank and canvass. The crowd inside the event was BEAUTIFUL, smiling, dancing here and there to Bill Withers’s Lovely Day. I signed up people of all ages and demographics, some of whom were inspired by Hillary’s platform to sign up for a campaign for the first time ever. I loved helping them find hours in their days and fill out their forms, letting them know that they could even phone bank from home. Men, women, and children volunteered their time, their talent, their artistic and organizing skills, the few spare moments they have.
A classroom of children were up on the bleachers, looking around the room in wonder and chanting “HRC! HRC!” In the midst of this tense and often-segregated city, it was a pleasure to be united with my fellow citizens for a common cause. Well, almost united. Almost all of us.

We were a festive crowd, but serious. I didn’t see the appealing Phish-show merriment that Sanders rallies seem to have, but I think I’m okay with serious when it comes to electing a president.

I used up all of my extroversion and almost all of my clipboard sheets. My fondness for paperwork comes in handy once again.

When President Clinton took the stage, I was standing with a class of African American kids and their teachers, my heart overflowing with love. The crowd was rapt for the President’s speech, woohooing the loudest about teachers and about Planned Parenthood. I’ve heard Bill Clinton give a commencement address, so this wasn’t the most eloquent I’ve seen him, but he was hitting the points we’d come to hear.

When the protest signs went up, my heart dropped. I watched them there in the middle of the crowd, hoping that they would be safe. When that brave woman started to speak, what you can’t really tell from the news is that she was heard. Though I don’t agree with her choice to blame Hillary for the crime bill, I was absolutely dazzled by this young woman’s courage. To stand up in the middle of a crowd and disagree with one of the most powerful men in the world is an act of bravery that should be honored, whether I agree with her or not. And I do agree with her on her most important point, that Black Lives Matter.

Wanting Hillary to have a chance to continue the Clintons’ decades of social justice work kept me on Bill’s side, but it the going was tough. I had a therapist once tell me that I don’t have enough room in my life for moral ambiguity, and I would like to have emailed her this deeply complicated day.

I want to be careful about how I say this next part, and it may well come out wrong. As the protesters continued to make themselves heard, I knew the exact moment when Twitter would explode. When Bill said the thing that I knew would be the headline, I looked around me in horror, expecting to see the same in the faces around me, but I didn’t. Though I  cannot and would not presume to know what they were thinking, the African American people around me seemed to be nodding in emphatic agreement with the President. One of the young women from the elementary class next to me yelled at the protesters to “Shut up!” but I (my teacher brain making me think all kids are my business) told her to listen to the protesters too and that everything would be okay.

Noting the presence of the Secret Service in the crowd, the teachers soon led their students out. I’m glad they got to see this. I’m glad they got to see how powerful one voice can be, and I hope that they’re inspired to grow up just as passionate and vocal.

I felt overwhelmed with so many different emotions, but when the line formed and the President came to shake hands, I stuck mine out. He took it, and held on while he was talking to the person in front of me, for a long time, and it almost felt like I was holding him up. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I was connecting with everything I stood for and against, with power and struggle and humanity. With a new forgiveness in my heart, I almost looked into his eyes. He looked tired, sad, and haunted. I’ve only done a microscopic fraction of what he’s done, but I do know what it’s like to fuck up while working against racism, what it’s like to set out to do good and find oneself pinned down by a poison system. What if, like everyone, he’s doing the best he can?

In the end, though, it’s Hillary Clinton who is running for president, and I believe she’s the candidate with the drive, skill, and wherewithal to help us build a country where Black Lives Matter. Her racial justice platform touches on many issues that are deeply important to me as an educator, particularly her plans to take apart the school to prison pipeline, [1] and end the achievement gap.[2] She also aims to protect transgender women of color [3] and has the clearest plan for supporting LGBT rights overall. [4] For these reasons, I hope that voters will look past the headlines and choose the candidate most equipped to improve African American lives.

[1]In too many communities, student discipline is overly harsh, with too large an emphasis on suspension, expulsion, or even police involvement—disproportionately impacting students of color and those with the greatest economic, social, and academic needs. Hillary will work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by providing $2 billion in support to schools to reform overly punitive disciplinary policies, calling on states to reform school disturbance laws, and encouraging states to use federal education funding to implement social and emotional support interventions.” (

[2] Every child—in every ZIP code—deserves the opportunity to live up to his or her potential. That begins with a world class education from birth through college. Hillary will double America’s investment in Early Head Start and ensure that every four year old in America has access to high quality preschool to begin closing the achievement gap. She will modernize and elevate the teaching profession to drive student achievement in our K-12 schools.” (

[3]LGBT Americans, particularly transgender women of color, are disproportionately the targets of discrimination, harassment, and violence. As president, Hillary will fight for full LGBT equality. She will work to protect transgender individuals from violence by improving the reporting of hate crimes, investing in law enforcement training that promotes fair and impartial interactions with the LGBT community, and directing the government to collect better data regarding crime victims.” (

[4]Today in America, nearly 65 percent of LGBT individuals report experiencing discrimination in their daily lives. LGBT youth are nearly twice as likely as their peers to be physically assaulted at school, and 74 percent of LGBT students say they’ve been verbally harassed for their sexual orientation. And a recent study found that nearly 50 percent of of LGBT elders experienced discrimination when applying for senior housing. Despite this discrimination, 31 states do not have fully inclusive LGBT non-discrimination laws. Hillary will work with Congress to pass the Equality Act, continue President Obama’s LGBT equality executive actions, and support efforts to clarify that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” (

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