In a prolonged exchange Thursday afternoon, former President Bill Clinton forcefully defended his 1994 crime bill to Black Lives Matter protesters in the crowd at a Hillary Clinton campaign event.
He 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."
"I talked to a lot of African-American groups," Clinton continued. "They thought black lives matter. They said take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs. We have 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals."
Throughout the spirited defense of his policy, Clinton continued to be interrupted, and he repeatedly seemed to single out one protester.
"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.
Bill Clinton did finally address her. "Hillary didn't vote for that bill, because she wasn't in the Senate," Clinton said. "She was spending her time trying to get health care for poor kids [referencing her advocacy for the Children's Health Insurance Program]. Who were they? And their lives mattered. And her opponent [Bernie Sanders] did vote for it. But I don't blame him either ... There were enough Republicans in the Senate to kill this bill, and nobody wanted it to die. That's what happened."
"But she [Hillary Clinton] was the first candidate, the first one to say let's get these people who did nonviolent offenses out of prison," Clinton continued. "And guess what? A lot of Republicans agreed. They know they made a mistake."
Clinton went on to further defend his administration, referencing the financial crisis: "It reminds me of when the Republicans try to blame me for the financial meltdown."
He turned back to his wife and said: "This election is about the future. They're trying to blame her for something she didn't do. So I'll tell you another story about a place where Black Lives Matter? Africa." The former president went on to speak of his wife's work fighting AIDS in Africa while secretary of state.