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Hillary Clinton & the “Mass Incarceration Machine”: A Debate on Her Support of 1994 Crime Bill

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Scholar Michelle Alexander made headlines last week when she wrote a critical post about Hillary Clinton’s record on criminal justice issues. “I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done—the millions of families [that were] destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes.” We look back at Clinton’s record with three guests: Darnell Moore, a member of the New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter; former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin; and former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Darnell Moore, you’re with Black Lives Matter. The group has said they’re not going to endorse a candidate. Why not?

DARNELL MOORE: So, to begin, I think it’s important to talk about the New Hampshire primary and its intended purpose. So, what happens, typically, a media—you know, a candidate who comes out of this as a winner can get a media boost and also more money for their campaign. In so many ways, the New Hampshire primary is sort of critiqued for its ability to too easily give the impression that there is general consensus around a candidate. So, given that, it behooves us to not give so easily an endorsement off of an illusion, in so many ways. It’s clear to think about who represent—who’s in New Hampshire. It’s primarily white. It’s primarily rich. And it sort of skews towards an older—like the average age is about 42 percent [sic]. That’s not nearly representative of many of the folk who are taking to the streets in this movement for black lives.

Beyond that, I think it’s really important to give candidates the space to come around and really amplify and break down the issues that are germane to the Black Lives Matters movement. That happened as it related to private prisons, with Hillary Clinton’s turn in October 2015. But people want the candidates—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, her turn?

DARNELL MOORE: Well, the private prison—the sort of speaking out against private prison and the corporate backing of prisons that happened in October 2015. But Black Lives Matter organizers want candidates to be clear about their positions, not just rhetorical, but in terms of policy and in ways that they expect for these things to take material reality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so far, among the Democratic candidates, what is your sense of some of the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement has been most involved in, especially changing the culture and the practice of policing in America? How have they been responding?

DARNELL MOORE: So, one of the things I think is important to note is that here is an iteration of a movement that squarely placed its critique on the state. This is about state-sanctioned violences of many types. And it makes sense to me why it is that folk would be resistant to not only providing endorsement, but to supporting the state and anyone representing it, when the state is actually the object of critique.

But there are issues beyond policing—so, policing, overcriminalization and policing in communities; environmental health concerns, like in Flint, Michigan; unemployment; undocumented status of people of color. There are so many other areas that are of concern that haven’t actually been sort of spelled out and broken down by candidates in ways that speak to the needs of Black Lives Matter organizers.

I should also say, you have to remember that this is a multigenerational movement. There are people who are on the streets and involved in this movement who were there in '96 when the Welfare Reform Act was passed. They were there in 1994 when the Violent Crime Act was passed. They have a sense of how Clinton had a part in the doing—in proliferating and spreading a lot of the problems that we're talking about now. And then there are some who may have lacked that political consciousness, who’s coming to it now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 1994, what you’re referring to, Darnell, when Hillary Clinton appeared on C-SPAN to back the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

HILLARY CLINTON: We keep going. With respect to the crime bill, I think as more Americans focus on the fact that this bill would have put more police on the street, would have locked up violent offenders so they never could get out again, would have given more prison construction money available to the states and as well as the federal government, but also would have dealt with prevention, giving young people something to say yes to. It’s a very well-thought-out crime bill, that is both smart and tough. I think Americans are going to say, “Why these political games? Why are we once again letting certain special interests call the shots in Washington?” And we will eventually get a good crime bill, like the president has proposed. It will just take a little longer than it should have.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton back in 1994. I wanted to turn to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, who recently wrote on her Facebook page, quote: “If anyone doubts that the mainstream media fails to tell the truth about our political system (and its true winners and losers), the spectacle of large majorities of black folks supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary races ought to be proof enough.” She said, “I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done—the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes.” Governor Kunin, can you respond to this?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Happily, I will respond. I mean, you may recall that before Barack Obama was elected, Bill Clinton was called “the first black president.” I think the Clintons have a long history of support for civil rights. And they understand the South, since he was born in Arkansas, and Hillary, early in her youth, fought for civil rights. Her basic training in politics came from Marian Wright Edelman, the Children’s Defense Fund. She has been there, and she’s not a recent spokesperson for Black Lives Matter. She went to Flint, Michigan, yesterday, giving up a day in New Hampshire, just to emphasize the point that in this largely black community it’s an outrage that the water has been poisoned. So, I think, you know, she’s been there, and he’s been there, and their commitment should not be questioned. Sure, there are laws that have been passed that have been detrimental. But she is for prison reform. We have to look at both the past and the present. And the same goes true for other issues. You know, when—she’s been voted the most admired woman in the world, year after year, because people respect her. People will remember the words, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” And she’s helped people of color in every country. So, she’s not a newcomer; she’s been tested. Her—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me—

MADELEINE KUNIN: The question, really, between the two is: Who can make it happen? Who can really make change happen? And I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” She may be the tortoise, and it may be a female tortoise, but she’s going to get us there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Governor Kunin, I wanted to ask you, in terms of Bernie Sanders, you’ve mentioned, one, that he’s not newcomer on the political scene. He’s been in public life now for 35 years. And you also mentioned that when he ran against you, he ran against as an independent who basically said that both parties were useless, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as he referred to them. Could you talk about that and the change now as he’s running in the Democratic primary?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, he’s obviously grown up a lot. And he’s a more—you know, his basic message has more resonance today than it did in 1986. But he was so focused, like a laser beam, on income inequality that he did not want to be distracted by either the women’s movement or the environmental movement. He thought that the elites were involved in these movements. So he’s come a long way, and I give him credit, frankly, for raising the issue of income inequality and campaign finance laws as they now exist. He’s made that a major part of the conversation of this campaign.

Where I differ from him is: How are you going to make it happen? How are you going to get it done? And I think that experience matters. And let’s face it, it’s tougher for a woman to be the first woman president of the United States and, in some sense, an influence in the whole world. She gets criticized either way. Either she’s too tough and too masculine, or else she’s too feminine and can’t be commander-in-chief. Somehow, she has to find that sweet spot between being strong enough to be commander-in-chief and feminine enough to be mother of the nation. A guy doesn’t have to walk that tightrope in quite the same way.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to—I wanted—

MADELEINE KUNIN: So, I think she—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Ben Jealous to go back to this point that Darnell Moore originally raised, that Michelle Alexander wrote about, and that is the issue of the prison pipeline, about the Clinton years around crime, the 1994 crime bill, and your assessment of this.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, look, you know, it’s really hard, you know, to hear the name of Marian Wright Edelman raised to vouch for Hillary Clinton being consistent on race, because the reality is that at that time, in addition to what we saw, which is her speaking the talking points of the prison guards’ lobby, we also saw her come out—Hillary Clinton—in the support of the superpredator bill—excuse me, the superpredator idea, to use the—to invoke the idea of superpredators to push for these crime bills. And the superpredator idea was this notion that a child at age six months could be such a sociopath as to be beyond redemption. And it’s a violation of theology, it’s a violation of basic psychology. It was never used, as far as I know, to describe anyone white. It was always used sort of to describe young black men as a mass. And it made life very tough for us. And it helped push in bills, quite frankly, that have led to the biggest spike in the incarceration of women that we have seen—of, typically, black women. But black women’s lives matter, too.

And that’s the tough part here, because, you know, you want to believe she can get things done, but then you see, on these criminal justice issues, in 2008, she was the only Democrat on stage who took the Republican position of saying that if we reduced the disparity between crack and powder sentencing—crack sentencing affects mostly blacks; powder, mostly whites—that there would be no retroactivity. And that was locking up mostly women, nonviolent drug addicts, who should have been in rehab, and keeping them from their children. Now, this year, she’s the only Democrat on stage, back when there were three, who supports the death penalty, again taking the Republican position. So I don’t disagree with the governor. There are some things that she’ll be able to get done—simply because she’ll capitulate. But the reality is that nobody says that the Republicans can’t—that their idealists can’t get things done. And game recognizes game. We need our idealists there, so that when they compromise, it’s an actual compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Ben Jealous with us, former head of the NAACP; Madeleine Kunin, joining us from Burlington, Vermont, the first woman governor of Vermont; and Darnell Moore of Black Lives Matter—they have not endorsed anyone. Stay with us.

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