Bill Clinton struggled to handle protesters in Philadelphia on Thursday, after a group briefly took the spotlight from him with chants and signs against the Clintons’ politics.
The mostly African American demonstrators shouted down the former president at several moments, and said he and Hillary Clinton contributed to the surge of incarcerations in the 1990s, mostly of black men. Clinton signed a crime bill in 1994 that sharply increased sentences for minor offenses, and last year the former president himself said the law did too much harm.
He admitted no regret in Philadelphia on Thursday, however, and defended the bill from protesters who held signs that contained phrases such as “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities”. Another held a sign that said: “Black youth are not super-predators,” an allusion to his wife’s 1996 remark about “the kinds of kids that are called super-predators”.
“No conscience, no empathy,” Hillary Clinton said at the time, referring to a debunked and racially charged theory. “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Twenty years later, and after a confrontation with a protester, Clinton acknowledged the words were poorly chosen. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today,” she said in a statement.
On Thursday her husband defended her, 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 on to the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t.”
Clinton also defended his own achievements at length, including an expired ban on assault weapons and welfare reform bill that is now criticized for unwise cuts that have actually contributed to increased poverty. Chief among those critics is Bernie Sanders, the rival candidate for Democratic nominee and a champion of fighting inequality. “They say the welfare reform bill increased poverty,” Clinton said. “Then why did we have the largest drop in African American poverty in history when I was president?”
The number of families living in extreme poverty has increased by 130% since 1996, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. Some groups, including single-mother households, benefited more from the reform bill than others.
The former president also noted that his wife had no voting power in the government at the time. “Hillary didn’t vote for that bill cause she wasn’t in the Senate, she was spending her time trying to get healthcare for poor kids.
Clinton admitted “it’s also true that there are too many people” in federal and state prisons, and said that his wife, along with Sanders and Republicans, are eager to reform the justice system.
Eventually Clinton gave up on his various attempts to engage, placate and rebut the protesters, and opted for changing the subject: “I’ll tell you another story about where black lives matter: Africa.”
One of the protesters spoke with reporters after the rally, saying she resented the treatment showed her by the former president and Clinton supporters. “We silently held our signs up and we have a right to do that,” Erica Miles said. “People attack us and we become the thugs.”
“I’m not here to say that Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton is not a good person. Their politics have hurt the black community, that’s all that is. This is not about whether I like them.”
Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.