Former President Bill Clinton got into a heated exchange with protesters on Thursday, pushing back against charges that anti-crime legislation and welfare reform passed during his tenure had devastated black communities.
A group of protesters interrupted the former president during a campaign appearance for his wife in Philadelphia. One person held up a sign that read, "Hillary is a murderer," while another yelled that she should be tried for "crimes against humanity."
The protesters were referencing Clinton's 1994 Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act, which is now widely accepted to have sparked a wave of mass incarceration, especially among people of color. Hillary Clinton has come under fire for her support of that legislation, as well as decades-old comments regarding a now-debunked myth about child "super-predators" who were supposedly responsible for crime. She's since apologized for those words.
"I had an assault weapons ban in [my version of the bill]," the former president said Thursday in defense of the 1994 legislation. "I had money for inner-city kids, for out of school activities, we had 110,000 police officers so we could put people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and the police would look like the people they were policing."
Despite those efforts, Clinton said he was told that Republicans wouldn't pass the legislation without more sentencing provisions.
"I talked to a lot of African-American groups -- they thought black lives mattered," continued Clinton. "They said, 'Take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs. We have 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals.'"
Clinton went on to say that gun violence and crime ultimately went down as a result of the crime bill. The legislation passed with harsh sentencing requirements like three strikes laws, which put many people -- including low-level offenders -- in jail for long periods of time. While crime did indeed decrease after the bill's passage, experts are divided on what role it may have played, if any. Clinton has conceded in the past that certain provisions contributed to mass incarceration.
Later in the exchange, Clinton appeared to respond to criticism of his wife on the "super-predator" myth.
"I don't know how you would describe the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the streets to murder other African-American children," he said. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn't. ...You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter."
While the crowd appeared to vocally support Clinton's exchange with protesters, at times chanting "HRC" to drown out their shouting, critics online saw Clinton's remarks as a woefully inarticulate moment for the former president. Many were quick to argue that Clinton had dismissed the protesters' concerns, and in turn defended the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the era and the merits of his approach to criminal justice.
As Slate's Jamelle Bouie pointed out, while the tide has now turned against the policies of the '90s that relied heavily on draconian punitive responses, the political calculus of the time was indeed much different.
Clinton then went on to defend his welfare reform proposals, arguing that he left the program in good shape, only to have a wave of Republican leadership at the state levels come into power and undo the work he'd accomplished.
After spending nearly 10 minutes rebutting protesters, Clinton suggested that critics not dwell so much on the past -- and not blame Hillary Clinton for things that she wasn't involved in.
"All I know is this election's about the future," he said. "They're trying to blame her for something she didn't do."