The past recedes in a pleasant haze. There’s an old song on the radio that brings back memories, but only good memories, if they are memories. Most people remember what should have happened, or might have happened – the good stuff. No one wants to remember the bad stuff, so they don’t, and if asked what was going on in a specific year, they can’t remember a thing – unless it’s 1968 – the year that rocked the world and all that. All the other years are a blur. What happened when? Take 1994 for example. What happened that year?
That’s where lists are useful – Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the right leg by a guy under orders from Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, which seemed to matter a whole lot at the time. NAFTA went into effect too. And we had a monster earthquake out here in Los Angeles. Seventy-seven people died. Kurt Cobain also died that year. So did Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan announced he had Alzheimer’s. The Channel Tunnel opened. OJ Simpson may have murdered his wife. We invaded Haiti. Newt Gingrich led the Republicans in taking control of both the House and Senate in the midterms that year. For the first time in forty years the Republicans had complete control of Congress, and George W. Bush was elected Governor of Texas. Something was up – and in March, in London, Ontario, Justin Bieber was born.
That was an odd year, but memory is selective. Others would choose other items from that list – and others have. Some remember what happened on September 13, 1994 – President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 into law. Joe Biden, the senior senator from Delaware back then, wrote the thing. He’s thinking of running for president now. Hillary Clinton, the first lady back then, was all for the bill, and she is running for president now – and the past is coming back to haunt her, as it will haunt Biden if he pulls the trigger and runs.
It has to haunt them. This is an albatross. This legislation funded nearly ten billion dollars for building giant new prisons all across America, and they were built, and filled. The bill also strictly forbids any federal educational funding for inmates – no more learning anything behind bars on the taxpayers’ dime. If you ever were released from prison you’d leave as uninformed and useless as the day they locked you up – and the Act also funded the hiring of one hundred thousand new police officers all across America, as fast as possible, no questions asked – and it added forty-one new capital crimes, new reasons the government could put you to death. It did have a strict ban on assault weapons, but that’s expired. No politician, Democrat or Republican, dares move to restore that ban – the NRA would end their political career right then and there. The Act did require the Department of Justice to issue an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” – but no such reports have ever been issued. No one complained. Until recently, no one wanted to hear it. Some still don’t.
Some do. The use of excessive force by law enforcement officers has gotten out of hand – and we do have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the bulk of those locked up are minorities, mainly black, and a whole lot of them are doing hard time for non-violent crimes – and this one bit of legislation set it all up and funded it. That matters to these people:
Black Lives Matter is a grassroots activist movement in the United States that began in the wake of the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. The Black Lives Matter movement campaigns against what it calls police brutality against African Americans in the United States. The group received fresh impetus from the 2014 deaths of two unarmed African Americans, teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City; in both cases the grand jury did not indict the officers and no charges were brought. Several unarmed African Americans who died at the hands of law enforcement have had their deaths protested by the movement, including Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray (whose death sparked the 2015 Baltimore protests). Numerous media organizations have referred to it as “a new civil rights movement.”
The movement was co-founded by three black activists: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Although the three run a stable website and organization, the overall Black Lives Matter movement is a decentralized network, and has no formal hierarchy or structure. The movement reached national awareness with the protests and unrest in Ferguson in August 2014, although Garza, Cullors and Tometi were not initially involved in those events.
The shooting of Walter Scott by a white policeman was recorded by a bystander, who contacted a local activist involved with Black Lives Matter; they, in turn, contacted Scott’s family to take possession of the video. Soon after the video was released to the public, the officer was arrested and charged with murder. The case is pending.
The movement may have no formal hierarchy or structure but those three words – Black Lives Matter – have become a rallying cry for everyone across American except for angry white Republicans and employees of Fox News. Those three words are on the walls in our cities, and that led to this:
Last week, Hillary Clinton met with five Black Lives Matter activists who were denied entry to her town hall in Keene, New Hampshire. The at-times tense, 15-minute discussion centered on her family’s role in shaping criminal justice policies – specifically her advocacy for the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, which her husband signed into law – and what needs to happen next.
On Monday night, GOOD Magazine published video of the exchange, which heated up when the presidential candidate suggested that the movement needed to focus on specific policy goals, not changing hearts. “I think that there has to be a reckoning, I agree with that, but I also believe there has to be some kind of positive vision and plan that you can move people toward,” Clinton said.
In subsequent media interviews, protesters Daunasia Yancey and Julius Jones, the founders of Black Lives Matter chapters in Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, respectively, said that they were looking for a “personal reflection” from Clinton on her specific role advocating for policies that lead to the mass incarceration of black and brown individuals, not just a reflection on failed policies. They also disagreed with the Democratic front-runner’s belief that you can’t change people’s hearts.
“This unwillingness to ‘change hearts’ is really an unwillingness to look at white supremacist violence for what it is, which is bigotry at its core,” Jones said Tuesday during an interview with Yahoo News.
She has her albatross, and Andrew Prokop has more on this meeting:
When Hillary Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists last week, she told them, “I don’t believe you change hearts. You change laws.” And this wasn’t just an offhand remark – it was a frank explanation of Clinton’s fundamental approach to politics.
Deep in her bones, Clinton is a pragmatist. She has little patience for lofty ideals if they’re not paired with achievable, specific next steps for policy change. It’s an approach that has long animated her politics – from college and law school to the 2008 presidential campaign, she’s continually argued that pragmatism is crucial to achieving progressive change. If you want to actually help people and solve problems, she says, you have to focus on practicalities.
Yet her critics fear that her approach could merely be a cloak for self-advancement – a typical politician’s excuse for not doing enough, for taking only half-measures, or for selling out when deeper change is needed.
For Clinton’s campaign to benefit from an enthusiastic and committed left, she’ll have to convince them that they’re wrong.
That’ll take some doing, but she did tell these folks this:
Activists should unite around a specific policy agenda: “What you’re doing as activists and as people who are constantly raising these issues is really important. So I applaud and thank you for that. I really do. Because we can’t get change unless there’s constant pressure. But now, the next step – so, you know, part of you need to keep the pressure on, and part of you need to figure out, what do we do now? How are we going to do it? … There has to be a reckoning. I agree with that. But I also think there has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward.”
We should focus on changing laws, not just hearts: “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential.”
Ideas for change need to be sold to the American people: “The next question by people who are on the sidelines, which is the vast majority of Americans, is, ‘So, what do you want me to do about it? What am I supposed to do about it?’ That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it, because in politics if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.”
Prokop goes on to explain that even when she was Hillary Rodham, in college and law school, she “repeatedly positioned herself as the person who’d bring idealistic activists down to earth, and make them focus on specifics.” She wanted to get things done. That’s why she exploded at Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign:
Now I could stand up here and say “Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.” Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.
She was serious. She’s a practical person. But then there’s 1994 and how cold practical pragmatism seems:
Clinton herself says she was just trying to help. “There was a very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people,” she told the activists. “So you know, you could argue that people who were trying to address that – including my husband, when he was president – were responding to the very real concerns of people in the communities themselves.”
But there’s a common concern on the left that Clinton has long been too willing to back policies they see as deeply misguided – from a “tough on crime” agenda to the Iraq War to helping Wall Street – to advance her own political career. Under this interpretation, the language of “pragmatism” is merely used to obscure that true purpose.
If she hopes to have anywhere near as much progressive enthusiasm as Barack Obama did, she has to convince liberals of her sincerity, and hope that policy specifics are what they truly want. “You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts,” she told the Black Lives Matter activists. But without policy change, she said, “we’ll be back here in ten years having the same conversation.”
Do you want to fix the problem or change hearts? The former can be done. The latter is unlikely, and you’ll never know if you do change hearts – nothing can be verified. Do they smile more?
Dara Lind has more:
The crux of the conflict is this: The activists see the 1994 crime bill, and the “tough-on-crime” agenda more generally, as “extensions of white supremacist violence against communities of color.” Clinton agrees with them that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, but refuses to accept that characterization of the bill.
At first, she characterizes it as something that made sense at the time but might not make sense anymore – a position her husband has also taken in offering a partial apology for signing the bill.
But when one activist associates the bill with a project of “white supremacist violence,” Clinton buckles. She takes it as a statement about intent – that laws like the 1994 crime bill were deliberately passed out of malice toward black communities. And so she counters that she and her husband were deeply concerned about black victims of crime, and were simply acting out of a desire to protect them…
In fact, that does make some sense:
Many black Americans, including black leaders, welcomed “tough-on-crime” policies as a way to protect their communities. A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the 1986 law that created the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And in 1994, it was the CBC that saved President Clinton’s crime bill after an unexpected loss on a procedural vote.
This is a history that’s been largely forgotten – partly because many of these leaders regret their positions now or – like former Rep. Kweisi Mfume – deny that they supported the bill at all. And in fairness, there was plenty of black opposition to tough-on-crime policies. There are probably good questions to ask about who is trusted to speak for black communities, and whether black leaders felt politically pressured to denounce the crime in their midst as a condition of being taken seriously.
But they certainly weren’t white supremacists. Clinton was correct. Yet it’s not clear that she was answering the right question.
But the “right question” is illusive:
The problem is that the conversation isn’t clear whether “extension of white supremacist violence” is about the intent of these policies or their consequences. This is a common problem with discussion of racism: Structural racism isn’t about feelings in individuals’ hearts – it’s about systems and outcomes. But it’s easy to slip from talking about systems to talking about people, and that’s what happened here.
Personally, I think the intent simply doesn’t matter. Clinton herself said, “You don’t change hearts. You change laws.” What matters is the external reality, not the feelings of the people who create it; caring about people will not save you from making policy choices that will hurt them. And – especially with hindsight – it’s possible to see that the consequences of the 1994 crime bill, as well as the tough-on-crime laws it encouraged states to pass or keep, were part of a system that has created widespread immiseration in black America.
Those consequences may have been intended or unintended. But people often confuse “unintended consequences” and “collateral damage” – and the damage done by the bill wasn’t collateral. By 1994, the crime wave had already peaked; the crime rate was starting a quarter-century of decline. Increased incarceration is responsible for a small fraction of that – but by 1994, the people being put in prison, on the margin, had long since stopped being the people who posed a serious threat. The suffering caused by the bill wasn’t a caveat; it was the primary consequence of its passage.
Kevin Drum isn’t so sure of that:
There’s an important point here, one that I became more deeply aware of when I wrote about childhood lead poisoning and violent crime a couple of years ago. Here it is: there really was a huge crime wave in the 70s and 80s. And it wasn’t uncommon for liberals to downplay this at the time, something that turned out to be a political disaster for liberalism. That’s because the crime wave wasn’t a myth, and it wasn’t made up. Rape, assault, and murder skyrocketed far above their previous highs, and inner-city neighborhoods in particular were especially hard hit. This is the reason that so many black leaders supported tough-on-crime bills of various sorts.
And while Lind is right that violent crime had peaked and was starting a long descent by 1994, no one knew it at the time. The peak had happened only a couple of years before, and there was no reason to think that a small drop in a single year or two was significant. So it’s not right to say that the people being put in prison in 1994 had “long since” stopped posing a threat. They posed a plenty big threat, and literally everyone who studied crime at the time thought they’d continue to do so for years. At the time, there was simply no reason to think that violent crime was about to plummet.
And there’s chemistry:
Now, everyone knows my take on this: both the rise and subsequent fall of violent crime was largely due to childhood lead poisoning caused by lead paint and leaded gasoline. Tough-on-crime measures, it turns out, probably didn’t contribute much to the fall in crime during the 90s and aughts. But again, at the time no one knew this. In 1994 no one had even an inkling that lead might be the culprit for high crime rates.
This in no way takes race out of the crime picture. It just explains it – black crime really did soar during the crime wave, and the reason was simple: black families lived disproportionately in inner cities, where both lead paint and exhaust fumes from cars were rife. Racism is behind this everywhere. Blacks lived in these neighborhoods in the first place largely because of redlining and racial animus. The neighborhoods then became worse because politicians built highways through them (the richer, whiter communities fought them tooth and nail). And they were never cleaned up because no one wanted to spend money on them. Paint and automobile lead poisoned black kids at a higher rate than white kids, and the result was higher black crime rates.
No one knew this at the time. And in a way, it didn’t matter. Even if we had known that lead was responsible, it wouldn’t have changed anything. Once the damage was done, it was done. And no matter what caused it, nobody wanted to let rapists and murderers roam the streets.
That’s what he remembers about 1994, and then there’s this:
Lind suggests that intent doesn’t matter. Something is racist if it has racist consequences. But I think you have to be pretty careful about that. Lind is right that, whether racially inspired or not, it’s important to face structural racism clearly and work relentlessly to overcome it. Nonetheless, intent does matter. Calling someone racist does nothing except make matters worse unless they really do have racist intent.
So was the 1994 crime bill racist in intent? No. Lots of black leaders, including black mayors who faced rising crime rates daily, supported it. Violent crime really was a huge problem – and it really was especially severe in black communities. Nobody at the time knew that lead might be the culprit for this, so they had to address it as best they could, given what they believed. So they did. The 1994 crime bill was not a white supremacist project. It was a crime bill.
One should be fair about this:
Hillary has defended her support of the 1994 crime bill given what she knew at the time, but she has also proposed criminal justice reforms that make it clear she has learned and has changed her mind. If those reforms are insufficient, fine. Fight for more. But both Clintons have made it clear that their views on crime have changed. There’s simply no excuse for pretending that either one of them was involved in a conspiracy of “white supremacist violence” against black communities.
Ah, but memory is selective, isn’t it? People remember what should have happened, or might have happened, or what they thought happened, when none of it did. People screwed up in 1994, when they were only trying to fix things. Major damage was done. It’s time to get to work and undo the damage, and write off that whole year as a mistake, including Justin Bieber.