It all started with a poke in Ashley Williams's back. The 23-year-old queer black activist was standing with a crowd in South Carolina gathered around the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, at a private, unlisted fundraiser, which had a $500-per-person price tag.
The poke, which came from Williams's fellow, anonymous co-conspirator, was a signal that the camera was on and recording, ready to capture Williams's interaction with the presidential candidate. But as soon as it came time to act, the activist tells The Advocate, “I froze. I couldn’t move.”
Williams finally mustered the energy to take two steps away from the crowd, which was enough to put the activist, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns they and them, within arm's length of Clinton.
Williams unfurled a white pillowcase bearing the message “We have to bring them to heel,” a quote from a speech Clinton gave 20 years ago, where she also described some gang members as "super-predators." Some activists, like Williams, believe Clinton was denigrating people of color, especially black men.
“I stood there, I stood there in my truth, and I felt really empowered," Williams says. "I remember in that moment — I’m looking everyone in the eye. I was scared, but I told myself, I’m here on purpose, and these words are words that she intentionally used, and I specifically want an apology for these things. I want her to explain this to me and to everyone else."
In the video, Williams stands silently for several seconds before Clinton acknowledges them. In that moment, “I was really nervous," they recall. "I’m looking at her, and she is reading the sign aloud, and saying, ‘Oh, we have to, oh…”
While the presidential candidate is reading the sign, Williams addresses her directly, saying, “I’m not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton.” They follow this statement with "You have to apologize for mass incarceration."
Clinton initially responds by telling Williams, "OK, fine, we'll talk about it." However, when Williams is undeterred by the candidate's dismissive tone, Clinton becomes visibly frustrated.
"You're being rude," an off-camera observer tells Williams, imploring the protester to let the candidate address her questions.
In turn, Williams responds by repeating this primary argument: "You called black people super-predators. That's rude! ... You owe black people an apology."
"If you'll give me a chance to talk, I'll address your questions," Clinton says as the demonstrator is being removed. Clinton also contends that "no one has ever asked me" about the 1996 comments that Williams was referencing.
"I live in a community of color," Williams says. "I live in the South. That’s all we want to know. That’s all were asking. That’s all we are talking about. For her to say that I'm the first person to ask her is ridiculous."
After being escorted from security, Williams never heard from the Clinton campaign again, though the video instantly went viral. Williams, who was able to attend the fundraiser because an anonymous donor footed the $500 bill, was satisfied with how the video took off:
"I knew we had done a good job if we got it on video, and if I could get her to talk to me, to address me, without getting pulled out first. It was really amazing that she said something to me, even though it wasn’t sufficient, and it shows that this wasn’t an issue for her. As I was being pulled out, she was saying, OK, back to the issues, and to me, that means what I had to say was not a thing for her campaign."
When asked if there is any presidential candidate that represents their interests, the activist says, “Right now I’m just supporting black people.”
"I don’t think that there's anything that she could say that could replace those folks back into our community," they added. "I don’t know if there's anything that she can do to make people not be in jail anymore and to bring people’s fathers back who died in jail, or to bring people's family members back who had negative interactions with the cops that resulted in death."
Williams is an independent organizer and not officially affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Movement officials have said they will not endorse any party or candidate. Alicia Garza, one of the queer co-founders of BLM, spoke at the annual Black Women’s Roundtable Policy Forum, and said, “We don’t think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter,” reported The Guardian.
Williams is still seeking an apology from Clinton for treatment they believe was dismissive. Williams also wants the former secretary of State to apologize to a Somali-American woman who confronted the candidate at a campaign stop in Minnesota about her "super-predator" comments not long after Williams did. Clinton told the woman, "Why don't you run for something, then?"
The activist says Clinton's comments to the woman in Minnesota were "absolutely ridiculous," and proved to Williams that "she doesn’t have me in mind, she doesn’t have my concerns in mind, or my concerns of people that I care about are not important to her. That rules her out for me. She was being really dismissive and I think that it’s really easy to tell someone else to do something that you didn’t do a good job at."
Although Clinton and Williams may not be meeting again any time soon, the question of why the presidential candidate used those words to describe young men continue to follow her.
"I think it was a poor choice of words. I never used it before, I haven’t used it since, and I would not use it again," Clinton admitted at Sunday night's debate in Michigan.