Former President William Jefferson Clinton mixed it up with Black Lives Matter activists as he defended his presidency, and his 1994 crime bill, when he was campaigning for candidate Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia last week. Hillary fans will say it isn’t fair that the Black Lives Matter folks keep raising issues from the Bill Clinton presidency, but since the Clintons campaigned in 1992 by asserting that they were a “two for one” presidency, raising those issues is at least somewhat fair.
It would be a dull and static world if people’s positions did not evolve, and Hillary Clinton has certainly indicated that she has changed her mind about some aspects of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill; she has apologized for her distasteful use of the term ‘superpredator’ as she lobbied for the legislation. Both she and her husband miss an opportunity to put the crime bill, and issues of race and crime, in context. If they would do so, they might shed light on the ways, historically, that our nation has used the nexus between race and crime to incite white fear and to demonize Black people.
Consider George W. Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ad to beat Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. Or taking it back nearly two decades earlier, consider the ways that then-President Richard Nixon began the ‘War on Drugs’ as a way to target Black people and leftists. Writing in this month’s Harper’s, journalist Dan Baum quotes Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, about the ways the so-called drug war served other purposes. “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” John Ehrlichman told Baum in a 1994 interview. While there is no way to verify the remarks (Ehrlichman died in 1999) they are entirely consistent with the ways that Mr. Nixon chose to behave.
The Clinton crime bill was consistent with the Nixon war. From the Harper’s article, quoting Ehrlichman: “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The Nixon drug wars made it easy for already over-eager police officers to do just that. The so-call war also made it acceptable for dirty cops to plant drugs whenever they wanted an excuse to fabricate an arrest. Then came the cocaine and crack epidemic, and the flooding of African American communities with these drugs. The San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb wrote about the ways Nicaraguan cocaine played a major role in the 1980s crack epidemic.
Webb alleged that crack flooded African American communities, perhaps with the cooperation of the CIA. While the Mercury News eventually wrote that his assertions were “only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes-conflicting pieces of evidence,” many give the Webb reporting significant credibility. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was among those who held hearings and called for action against the ways government may have conspired against Black people.
Crack caused rising crime rates. Crack came from profiteers who operated with the acquiescence, if not full cooperation, of the CIA. The extremely imperfect Clinton crime bill, good intentioned though Bill Clinton says it was, was also part of the continuum of government attacks on black people that used crime as a weapon. Instead of responding defensively to attacks on his crime bill, Bill Clinton might have taken the high road and used his rhetorical leadership to talk about the ways government has historically attacked black people and the reasons why this must change.
Our nation has an ugly legacy when it comes to the structural treatment of African American people. Black folks have been used as a profit center for the prison-industrial complex, for the Nicaraguan drug cartel, for the Wall Street bankers who benefitted when they laundered drug dollars to increase their profits.
More importantly, the drugs that flooded Black communities muted the righteous black rage that might have been directed toward social change. The Black Lives Matter activists are right to raise pointed questions about the Clinton crime bill. President Bill Clinton could “do the right thing” if he put his flawed crime bill in context and stopped fighting with the Black Lives Matter folks who are telling nothing but the truth.