For me, the most cringe-worthy part of Bill Clinton's tirade directed at the Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia was when he dragged out the old "super predator" rhetoric. Although he didn't use that exact phrase, his reference to "gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out into the streets to murder other African American children" tapped right back into the fear and loathing that produced the crisis of mass incarceration we know today. There were no "super predators." There weren't any "crack babies" or "welfare queens" either. But that kind of sensationalism during the 1980s and 1990s, when I was coming up, racialized crime and poverty and led to an era of punitiveness that is just now coming under serious scrutiny. President Bill Clinton's finger-wagging performance in Philadelphia shows that in spite of his "almost apology," he still doesn't get it.
I went into prison in 1994 at the age of 24, the year the federal crime bill Bill Clinton defends was enacted. Throughout my adolescence, I encountered a formidable set of obstacles: poverty and resource scarcity, crime, subsistence-level public support, and intra-community violence. In prison I was surrounded by young black and brown men like me who, in spite of the much touted economic prosperity of the Clinton years, had little reason to be hopeful. The truth is that while unemployment rates sank to low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men without college degrees rose to the highest level ever. It's also true that by the time I went to prison, the crime rate had already started its long and steady decline which, according to most experts, would have continued without the prison-building frenzy launched by the 1994 law. So, taking credit for "a 25-year low in crime, a 30-year low in the murder rate" as Clinton did in Philadelphia is undeserved.
One of the biggest problems with Bill Clinton's angry and defensive response to the Black Lives Matter protesters is the way he assumes the truth-teller's mantle. He accuses the protesters of being "afraid of the truth" but it is really the other way around. The protesters represent the lived experiences of many millions of African Americans; not just the 65 million of us with criminal records, but our immediate and extended families and our communities. They represent a generation of young people who have suffered the direct effects of mass incarceration. Some have had a parent or a sibling taken away to serve a long, mandatory sentence far away from home. Some come from families whose earning power has been greatly diminished because of the stigma of a criminal record. Some have been subjected to racial profiling and police harassment. Many come from communities reeling from what sociologists call the "churning effect" - the constant removal and return of residents leading to destabilization and, ironically, less safe neighborhoods. They are the truth-tellers here.
Bill Clinton is not alone among our former and current political leaders to gloss over the intended and unintended consequences of mass incarceration. But new voices are speaking truth to power. A human rights movement led by formerly incarcerated people and their supporters is growing and gaining credibility and influence and, to his credit, President Obama has recognized our expertise and invited our input on how to bring about real reform. We look forward to continuing this process with the next president, whoever he or she may be. We are in it for the long haul, for ourselves, our families and communities, and our country.