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Biden Admits Past Mistake Supporting Crime Bill as Trump Defends Attacks on Black Lives Matter

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President Trump and Joe Biden sparred on their records over race and criminal justice in Thursday’s presidential debate. Trump simultaneously promoted his criminal justice reform efforts while continuing to lean on “tough on crime” rhetoric. Trump also criticized Biden for authoring the 1994 crime bill and supporting other laws that intensified mass incarceration in the U.S., which Biden acknowledged was “a mistake.” Rashad Robinson, spokesperson for Color of Change PAC, says Biden’s admission highlights the importance of continued pressure on politicians on racial justice issues. “The Democrats can’t just make this about hating Trump. They also have to continue to fight and build and put out the policies that are going to change lives and remove barriers and systems that have stood in people’s way,” Robinson says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. This is The Quarantine Report, as we continue to cover the final presidential debate. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred Thursday on their records over race and criminal justice. Let’s turn to debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC.

KRISTEN WELKER: Mr. President, you’ve described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “symbol of hate.” You’ve shared a video of a man chanting “white power” to millions of your supporters. You’ve said that Black professional athletes exercising their First Amendment rights should be fired. What do you say to Americans who say that kind of language from a president is contributing to a climate of hate and racial strife?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you have to understand, the first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting, “Pigs in a blanket,” talking about police — pigs, pigs, talking about our police. “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” I said, “That’s a horrible thing.” And they were marching down the street. And that was my first glimpse of Black Lives Matter. I thought it was a terrible thing. As far as my relationships with all people, I think I have great relationships with all people. I am the least racist person in this room.

KRISTEN WELKER: Well, what do you say to Americans who are concerned by that rhetoric and by the videos?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what to say. I got criminal justice reform done and prison reform and Opportunity Zones. I took care of Black colleges and universities. I don’t know what to say. …

JOE BIDEN: Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one. Started off his campaign coming down the escalator saying he’s getting rid of those “Mexican rapists.” He’s banned Muslims because they’re Muslims. He has moved around and made everything worse across the board. He says to the — about the Proud Boys, last time we were on stage here, he said, “I tell them to stand down and stand ready.” Come on. This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Rashad Robinson, spokesperson for Color of Change PAC.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Rashad. Your response to what they’re saying there and overall to the debate?

RASHAD ROBINSON: You know, I mean, I think one of the things, that when these conversations happen about race, we oftentimes sort of hear a whole bunch of disparities, or we hear candidates trying to talk about what they’re going to do for the community. And, you know, that, I think, is helpful to some extent, but I think that what we’re oftentimes seeing — I think what I hope we can see more from the Democrats is actually really leaning into how racial justice is not just about what you’re going to do for the community. Racial justice is also a strategy about how we actually win on the wide range of things that we can win on, from healthcare to climate to so much more, because part of the problems of why we don’t have the things that we need in this country is because of systems set up around racial inequality.

And so we shouldn’t just follow the ball that Donald Trump lays down about sort of the sort of racism that’s at the heart of his campaign, some of the sort of racial enabling and racism that’s at the heart of the Republican Party. We know all of that. What are we going to actually do to motivate people not just to hate Trump, but to love the other side in return? I think that’s going to be the ongoing task, not just about winning elections. It’s about governing. It’s about having the power to actually overcome the barriers that oftentimes stand in the way of moving us forward on the issues that impact sort of the climate around race, that impact Black and Brown communities every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about COVID when it comes to the African American community, when it comes to communities of color all over this country, the disproportionate effect?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that this is part of, I think, the challenge of how we need to unlock the power of racial justice, right? So, when we talk about COVID, we will hear folks say Black folks are dying. But, in fact, Black folks are being killed by government action, by corporate power, by an insurance industry. When we talk about the structural issues that impact Black communities in a passive voice, rather than an active voice, we spend all of our time talking about how do we fix Black people and Black families, rather than fixing the structures that harm and hurt as. I mean, we do this across the board, whether it’s saying Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank, instead of actually saying banks are less likely to give loans to Black people. And so, when we talk about COVID, it’s not that COVID, the disease itself, is racist. It’s that America is racist, and the structures and the systems that we have set up have simply exposed all these challenges.

But when we talk about these problems in a passive voice, when we talk about these things like it’s just happening to the community, not that the poverty and inequality and racism is part of a manufactured structure, that there’s corporate power and other systems at every turn benefiting from the sort of impact of these decisions, then we end up sort of really focused on treating communities like they are vulnerable rather than actually treating communities like they’ve been targeted, attacked, exploited. It actually leads us to a very different set of solutions when we talk about the structural problems in an active voice rather than a passive voice, because when we talk about it in an active voice, we actually focus on solving the problems at hand rather than trying to fix people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about, for a moment, the debate moderator. Kristen Welker is the first woman of color, the first African American woman to preside over, to moderate a presidential debate since Carol Simpson did in 1992. And at every turn in these last weeks, President Trump went after her viciously, tweeting against her. Yesterday he released the 60 Minutes interview before 60 Minutes released it. He was interviewed by Lesley Stahl and then walked out of it. And he attacked Lesley Stahl. And then he said, and Kristen Welker is even worse.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, you know, and then you saw him on stage sort of playing and saying nice things to her before and after. This is the showman, right? This is Donald Trump. I mean, and I think part of what we have to recognize is all the ways he’s been able to do this his whole career. I saw a clip going around yesterday of sort of an interview that he had with Connie Chung years ago, and then the things that he said about her afterwards, right?

This is a president that got here because so many folks enabled him. He was on NBC’s platform, on Celebrity Apprentice, once a week, with corporate sponsors, while he was going around the country spreading a racist conspiracy theory about President Obama and was allowed to continue to have that platform. And when that happens, we sort of lower the standards of what’s acceptable and create sort of a situation where some of these things are just allowed as acceptable part of the debate.

But the thing I want to say about the debate moderator, Kristen Welker, is that I think that she really leaned in in a way that we did not see in the last debate. I think she followed up. She really used the opportunity to press both candidates on the issues and try to get them to answer the question.

And for folks who are activists out there listening, for people who have been showing up to protest and showing up to raise their voice, whether it’s online or offline, in this moment, I think activism was on the stage in a very interesting way. And I think that’s important, because we haven’t had town hall meetings. We haven’t had the sort of opportunities to question the candidates up front, for those moments for immigrant activists and BLM activists and others and climate activists to press the candidates in forums that were sort of more open.

But on that stage, I think what you saw was Kristen actually pushing these candidates as a result of the larger activism in the space, the way that the conversations and movements on the street have actually changed the dialogue. And whether it was the first debates that we saw on the Democratic side, where you saw a whole new set of issues being talked about, from reparations to racial injustice to white supremacy, for the first time on a presidential debate, I think back to being in middle school during that Carol Simpson debate, and probably the first debate I watched at home with my family, really coming off of getting to understand and learn about the presidential debate when my parents in 1988 gave some of our vacation money to Jesse Jackson’s presidential run, and I think about how far some of these conversations have come, how far we are at talking about these issues.

And I think what’s going to be important, if Joe Biden becomes the president, is that we recognize that we can’t mistake the presence of our issues on debate stage for the power to actually change the rules. And we’re going to have to press and push and challenge and build power. And for folks who are out there, they’re going to have to invest in Black and Brown infrastructure to actually channel that energy, so that we get the type of change that makes people’s participation valuable and over the years can be a force multiplier for more people to want to participate in our democracy because they see the result of the type of change that participation brings about.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC.

KRISTEN WELKER: Crime bills that you supported in the '80s and ’90s contributed to the incarceration of tens of thousands of young Black men who had small amounts of drugs in their possession. They are sons, they are brothers, they're fathers, they’re uncles, whose families are still to this day, some of them, suffering the consequences. So, speak to those families. Why should they vote for you?

JOE BIDEN: One of the things is that in the '80s we passed 100% — all 100 senators voted for it — a bill on drugs and how to deal with drugs. It was a mistake. I've been trying to change it since, and particularly the portion on cocaine. That’s why I’ve been arguing that, in fact, we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense. They should be going into treatment, across the board. That’s what we should be spending money on. That’s why I set up drug courts, which were never funded by our Republican friends. They should not be going to jail for a drug or an alcohol problem; they should be going into treatment. Treatment. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. That’s what I’m going to get done, because I think the American people have now seen that in fact it was a mistake to pass those laws relating to drugs. But they were not in the crime bill.

KRISTEN WELKER: OK. Sir?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But why didn’t he get it done? See, it’s all talk, no action, with these politicians. Why didn’t he get it done? “That’s what I’m going to do when I become president.” You were vice president, along with Obama as your president, your leader, for eight years. Why didn’t you get it done? You had eight years to get it done. Now you’re saying you’re going to get it done. Because you’re all talk and no action, Joe.

JOE BIDEN: We got a lot of it done.

KRISTEN WELKER: Your response?

JOE BIDEN: We released 38,000 —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You didn’t get anything done.

JOE BIDEN: We got 38,000 prisoners left from the — out of —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You got nothing done.

JOE BIDEN: Thirty-eight thousand prisoners were released from federal prison. We have — there were over a thousand people who were given clemency. In fact, we’re the ones that put in the legislation saying we could look at pattern and practice of police departments and what they were doing, how they were conducting themselves. I could go on. But we began the process. We began the process. We lost an election. That’s why I’m running, to win back that election and change his terrible policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there’s Joe Biden and Trump, Trump taking on the crime bill. Rashad Robinson, if you can respond?

RASHAD ROBINSON: It’s just so much misinformation and disinformation. I think this is part of the challenge that organizations like mine have in sort of parsing this through, where Donald Trump is somehow trying to make himself an advocate for criminal justice reform or even drug reform, when we know his history and even how the First Step Act came about.

I’m not here to defend the Democrats on criminal justice reform. I’m here to say that they are the party that we have the best chance of pushing to do the right thing. They’re the folks most likely to be nervous about disappointing us on this issue. But both parties have a lot of work to do. And that is without false equivalencies.

I think the thing that’s important here is that Biden, Joe Biden, and his campaign are acknowledging the flaws and the problems in previous decisions about how they dealt with drug policy, about how they dealt with criminal justice, acknowledging on the stage last week that the '94 crime bill was a mistake. And I think that that is important. That's a representation of a lot of pushing, challenges from those outside and inside of the campaign.

And now we need to see that translate into the type of energy and heat necessary to actually make changes on those things, and the type of changes that are not just sort of the cosmetic changes that stop the bleeding, but actually the type of changes that restore people’s lives and dignities, that have been stolen, for them.

You know, we have drug laws on the books that are just simply designed to target and exploit Black people, and it starts all the way down with marijuana, that is essentially legal for rich people and for white people in this country, and we still see Black and Brown people being locked up, all the way up to all the disparities in other drugs. It has failed. It has not worked. And we actually have to build systems of harm reduction, systems that actually allow for people to have the things that they need and people to have the privacy in their lives that they need, as well.

But I do think that is a fundamental change in the conversation and the debate. But I do think, once again, you’ve got this sort of showman in Donald Trump that’s willing to say anything. And he’s trying a very interesting dance on the stage — on one hand, making these deep appeals to law enforcement, on the other hand, trying to make these appeals to Black men at the same time — and doing it in ways that sort of can be confusing and complicated, but because he’s such a showman, sometimes it can get over.

And that misinformation and disinformation about where he actually stands on the issue is part of why we have to continue to challenge. But it’s also why the Democrats can’t just make this about hating Trump. They also have to continue to fight and build and put out the policies that are going to change lives and remove barriers and systems that have stood in people’s way.

AMY GOODMAN: Rashad Robinson is spokesperson for Color of Change PAC. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Erika Andiola, the immigrant rights activist, and get her response to the issue raised of the 545 immigrant children in this country — where are their parents? — that the Trump administration separated from them. Stay with us.

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