Black Lives Matter Activist: Bill Clinton's Defense of "Superpredator" Policies Dehumanizes Us

April 11, 2016


Melina Abdullah

organizer with Black Lives Matter. She is also a professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

The Black Lives Matter movement continues to shake up the race to the White House. On Thursday, activists in Philadelphia disrupted a speech by former President Bill Clinton, who was campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton. The activists called out the Clintons for their support for the 1994 crime bill, which led to a massive expansion of incarceration in the United States, and Hillary Clinton’s 1996 comments that some youth were "superpredators." In response, Bill Clinton defended Hillary Clinton’s use of the term "superpredators" and accused the activists of defending criminals. We speak to Melina Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles. "[Bill Clinton] is very good at ... distracting us from how systems create these conditions," says Abdullah. "They act as if the young folks who wind up committing crimes … as if they weren’t human beings. This term 'superpredator' dehumanizes our children."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road as part of our 100-city tour, now in Los Angeles, California. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to shake up the race to the White House after former President Bill Clinton said Friday he regretted his comments to black protesters at a rally in Philadelphia the day before. Black Lives Matter activists had interrupted Clinton during a speech in support of his wife, Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They challenged the Clintons on their support for the 1994 crime bill, which led to a massive expansion of incarceration in the United States. Activists shouted, "Black youth are not superpredators!" a reference to Hillary Clinton’s 1996 comments about some youth. They also held signs reading, quote, "Clinton Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities." In response, Bill Clinton defended Hillary Clinton’s use of the term "superpredators" and accused the activists of defending criminals.

BILL CLINTON: 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. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns. There was a 13-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., who was planning her own funeral. ...

I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought black lives mattered. They said, "Take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs." We had 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals. She doesn’t want to hear any of that. You know what else she doesn’t want to hear? Because of that bill, we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33 low in the murder rate, year low rate, murder rate. And listen to this: 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?

AMY GOODMAN: After his comments ignited a storm of controversy Thursday, Bill Clinton spoke Friday and elaborated on what he said. But he stopped short of apologizing.

BILL CLINTON: So, I did something yesterday in Philadelphia I almost want to apologize for, but I want to use it as an example of the danger threatening our country, because the founders set this country up so that we could keep growing and being bigger and including more people, but we would always have to come together to make a decision that would move us forward. ... We got a 25-year low in the crime rate. We got a 33-year low in the murder rate. We got a 46-year low in the illegal death by homicide rate. I think we showed that lives matter to us. I think it was good. But that is not how people see it 30 years later, when they just see all these young people who need to be out of jail. I get that. But we’ve got to get the show on the road. We can’t be fighting our friends. We’ve got enough trouble with the people that aren’t for us.

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton’s comments come as prosecutors here in Los Angeles are determining whether to retry six Black Lives Matter activists whose trial recently ended in a hung jury. The six face misdemeanor charges for barricading the 101 freeway in Los Angeles in November 2014, the action in response to the non-indictment of former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown three months earlier. Activist Rosa Clemente was also tried, but she was acquitted. Supporters say the prosecution is part of a larger effort by the LAPD and City Attorney’s Office targeting Black Lives Matter activists in Los Angeles.

For more, we’re joined here in Los Angeles by two guests. Nana Gyamfi is a criminal defense and human rights attorney who represents Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Also with us is Melina Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, also professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with you, Melina Abdullah. Respond, before we talk about the trial, to this—what happened with President Clinton last week, when Black Lives Matter activists interrupted his speech, what he said.

MELINA ABDULLAH: Right. Well, I think that what we’re seeing with President Clinton—former President Clinton and what we’re seeing in Los Angeles are actually linked, so this idea of neoliberal politics kind of blaming the folks who it assails for their own oppression. And so, when we think about the initial comments by President Clinton around black youth and those who got them, quote-unquote, "hopped up on crack," I think what he’s really neglecting is the policies that bring crack cocaine into inner cities in the first place, the policies that create unemployment and underemployment in the first place, and then the policies that he initiates, that then go ahead and further oppress and repress communities. And so, that is one of the things that we’re so upset about, that he is dehumanizing the communities that are actually the victims and bear the brunt of neoliberal policies that keep us oppressed.

AMY GOODMAN: After calling for unity on Friday, former President Bill Clinton continued to defend the 1994 crime bill he passed, which led to a massive expansion of incarceration in the United States.

BILL CLINTON: You’re living in a country where young African Americans think their number one threat now is from police officers. When I signed that crime bill, they knew what their number one threat was. It was from gangs making money out of cocaine, taking teenage kids, hopping them up, giving them guns and telling them to go kill other teenagers.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Melina Abdullah, as he talks about gangs and why exactly he did what he did in the 1990s?

MELINA ABDULLAH: Right. So, as one who was coming of age myself in the '90s, as one who lived in East Oakland, a space where these kinds of conditions that he describes were really part of my everyday experience, one of the things that he is very good at, and neoliberal politicians are very good at, is kind of distracting us from the real issues, distracting us from how systems create these conditions. So they act as if the young folks who wind up, you know, committing crimes committed crimes because they simply were out of control, committed crimes as if they weren't human beings. So this term "superpredator," again, dehumanizes our children, dehumanizes our people. And so, it acts as if we’re behaving in ways that are not simply as a result of the conditions that we experience.

And so, we need to turn the tables and look back at policymakers; look back at systems that create oppressions in the first place, that create hollowed-out communities where there are no resources, where there are no livable-wage jobs, where there are no after-school programs; look at the policies of the Clinton administration rolling back the kinds of resources that I would have benefited from, and many of my peers would have benefited from, in kind of moving forward. And so, rather than looking at so-called 13-year-old superpredators, which, you know, we know is a term that’s used for black youth—this is dog-whistle politics, right?—we need to look at policies that don’t provide the resources that we need, that began in the '90s but continue to today. So the crime bill is another example of it, right? So, we're blaming people for being in prison, we’re blaming people for being poor, we’re blaming people for not having access to resources, when we’re not looking at the policymakers themselves who create the conditions that hold back resources from communities.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaking at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Saturday. He was asked about Bill Clinton’s defense of Hillary Clinton’s use of the word "superpredator."

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I think we all know what that term meant—


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: —when—in the context that it was said years ago. We know who they were talking about.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Right, black people.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: That’s exactly right. That’s who it was. And I think that the president owes the American people an apology for trying to defend what is indefensible.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernie Sanders at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with Harry Belafonte, who’s come out in support of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator. Melina Abdullah, what Bernie Sanders said?

MELINA ABDULLAH: It is absolutely indefensible. That said, we’re not looking for an apology from Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton, who is now seeking our vote. Right? We’re not looking for apologies from them. What we want is substance. So we want substantive responses. We want responses that are actually empowering to communities. We want it recognized that our children are not superpredators. We want it recognized that there is something that can be done to then kind of shift what it is we’re doing with our resources and with our policies, to be empowering to communities and be in conversation with communities. I think what’s most disturbing is that when we talk about superpredators, when we talk about 13-year-old children as not being children, it also signals a kind of policymaking agenda that seeks to advance the interests of big business, of white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism—the existing hegemony—as the primary agenda that needs to be addressed, without engaging the communities that are most in need of progressive and really kind of forward-thinking transformational policy work.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, in this election, as a number of newspapers point out, no group has been more loyal to Hillary Clinton than the African-American community.

MELINA ABDULLAH: Well, I think the black political class has lined up behind Hillary Clinton, because they see neoliberalism as an alternative to Trump. Right? But the truth is, we really need to kind of think and be more imaginative. We really need to think about what do we really want, not just what do we not want. So we know we absolutely don’t want a Trump, but it doesn’t mean that Hillary or neoliberalism, as a kinder, gentler face on oppression, is good for communities, either. And so it’s really important that we understand that we can move things forward by engaging in work on the ground.

And so, the last time that I was with you, we talked about how Black Lives Matter is not endorsing any political candidate. And I think that what’s happening around Clinton, the Clintons, and what’s happening just in terms of what’s kind of bubbling up from the two-party system is an indicator of why we’re not endorsing any of the candidates, including Clinton. And I think that what we’re also seeing is a divide between the political class, who tends to behave pragmatically within a two-party system, and what’s happening with the working class and the people who are really kind of bearing the brunt of neoliberal policies, saying that we’re not enthused about any of the candidates, including Clinton. So I don’t hear a whole lot of enthusiasm on the ground in my neighborhood.

AMY GOODMAN: Melina Abdullah, I want to thank you for being with us, organizer with Black Lives Matter, professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State in Los Angeles. When we come back, we’ll talk about a Black Lives Matter case that was just wrapped up and where it goes from here. Are the LAPD, the Los Angeles police, spying on Black Lives Matter activists? Then we’ll talk about Japanese internment, as Republican candidates call for a barring of Muslims in this country and surveillance of the Muslim community. We go back in time and look at the Japanese interment, how it happened. Could it happen again? Stay with us.

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