For a power couple that dominates with black voters, the Clintons sure have had their run-ins with this core group within the Democratic Party. Bill won them decisively (no shocker there) during his political career; Hillary trounced her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, when the Democratic primaries headed to the South. Yet, the former first lady had a rather awkward meeting with Black Lives Matter last summer while traveling through New Hampshire. The conversation soon went off the rails when one of the activists said, “This is, and has always been, a white problem of violence. There’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.”
Hillary Clinton responded by saying, “Respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems." Well, now it’s Bill Clinton’s turn to face the Black Lives Matter folk, who interrupted him on the campaign stump yesterday in Philadelphia. They were heckling him over his 1994 crime bill, which the former president responded to by telling them, “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who cause young people to go out and take guns” (via NPR):
He [Clinton] said the bill lowered the country's crime rate, which benefited African-Americans, achieved bipartisan support, and diversified the police force. He then addressed a protester's sign, saying:
"I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children," Clinton said, addressing a protester who appeared to interrupt him repeatedly. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens .... You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who cause young people to go out and take guns."
The Clintons have faced criticism from BLM activists and younger black voters for months now over that bill, which they say put an unfairly high number of black Americans in prison for nonviolent offenses.
After a protester interrupted him repeatedly, Bill Clinton began to take on that critique directly, making the claim that his crime bill was being given a bad rap.
"Here's what happened," Clinton said. "Let's just tell the whole story."
"I had an assault weapons ban in it [the crime bill]. I had money for inner-city kids, for out of school activities. We had 110,000 police officers so we could keep people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and the police would look like the people they were policing. We did all that. And [Joe] Biden [then senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee] said, you can't pass this bill, the Republicans will kill it, if you don't put more sentencing in it."
She doesn't wanna hear any of that," Clinton said to the protester. "You know what else she doesn't want to hear? Because of that bill, we have a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in murder rate. And because of that and the background check law, we had a 46-year low in the deaths of people by gun violence, and who do you think those lives were? That mattered? Whose lives were saved that mattered?"
For several minutes, the discussion of the crime bill, Clinton's exchange with the protester and the crowd's attempts to yell and chant over her were missing one thing: any mention of Hillary Clinton, the one Clinton running for president this election cycle.
There’s no doubt that many crime analysts are pointing to the former president’s crime bill as the epicenter for the increased incarceration rates due to mandatory minimum sentencing. The funny thing is that Bill knows this contributed to increased rates of incarceration among black Americans. Last May, he more or less disowned his crime bill, which also included the odious assault weapons ban, saying that it had “too wide a net” that resulted in “too many people in prison.” Reuters had some numbers:
The United States has more people in prison than any other country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.05 million prisoners were held in federal or state facilities in 1994. By 2014, it was 1.56 million. That year, 6 percent of all black men in their 30s were in prison, a rate six times higher than that of white men of the same age.
Bill Clinton said last year that he regretted signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law because it contributed to the high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes. On Thursday, he did not explicitly recant those regrets, but appeared to be angry at any suggestion the bill was wholly bad.
The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was known for its federal "three strikes" provision that sent violent offenders to prison for life. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Clinton.
The fact that Clinton only regrets the sentencing part is pretty much true. He only wishes the writing was crafted differently, but no one is against adding 100,000 extra police officers–and Democrats are sure as hell for so-called assault weapons bans. Moreover, there does seem to be a generational divide here. For some Millennials, they do not remember the crime-ridden days of the 1980s and early 90s. The crime statistics would be unpalatable to the current electorate. There were over 2,000 homicides in New York City alone in 1990. So, not only was the climate right to pass a tough as nails crime bill, it was also necessary and needed; no party wants to look soft on crime, especially during an election year.
So, is this event more bad news for the Clintons? A former president telling black activists that they’re defending drug dealers and murderers–I would say that’s pretty bad optics. It sure adds to the list of Democratic misfires in the media, where President Obama found himself once again in the “what the hell were you thinking” category when he decided to do the wave at a Cuban baseball game with dictator Raul Castro after the brutal Brussels bombings committed by ISIS. Obama was making his historic visit to the island nation. He later did the tango when he stopped by Argentina. Yet, in both instances, there will be no fallout. Obama has pretty much checked out, with no major elections for him coming up. He can do what he wants. As for Clinton, he might get some flak with fellow progressives for defending his crime bill, but black voters aren’t going to abandon Hillary, or the Democrats, in the general election. They’re not going to abandon her in the primary, and she’s already won the lion share of the black Democratic vote already. At the same time, Bill should probably let event staff and security handle such protesters if they heckle at future events. Bill Clinton yelling at black people isn’t the best news story to be circling around about your wife’s presidential bid.