In the final days before the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, things are getting heated as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battle for black votes in a state with a large black electorate. Things got a little hotter Wednesday night when a #BlackLivesMatter activist confronted Hillary at a private event in Charleston, South Carolina. Activist Ashley Williams interrupted Clinton’s remarks by holding up a cloth sign that read “We Have to Bring Them to Heel,” a reference to comments she made in 1996, and demanded an apology from Hillary:
Clinton: (reading sign) We have to bring them to heel.
Williams: We hope you apologize for mass incarceration.
Clinton: Okay, we’ll talk about it.
Williams: I’m not a Superpredator, Hillary Clinton.
Clinton: Okay, we’ll talk about it.
Williams: Will you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?
Clinton: Can I talk? And maybe you can listen to what I say.
(someone in crowd hisses)
Williams: You called black people “Superpredators.”
Crowd: That’s not appropriate. You’re being rude.
Williams: You called black people “Superpredators,” that’s rude.
Clinton: Okay, you want to hear the facts, or you want to just talk?
Williams: I know that you called black youth “Superpredators” in 1994. Please explain for the record. Please explain it to us. You owe black people an apology.
Before peeling away the layers of this onion, it’s important to give Ashley Williams major points for execution. According to The Huffington Post, she and her videographer paid $500 to get into the event, and maneuvered themselves into some prime real estate at the front of the crowd. Facts aside, the optics of the confrontation are all on Williams’ side, as politicians still haven’t learned that “Why don’t you stop talking and listen to me?” is not an effective way to engage activists you care about engaging.
Facts are stubborn things, though, and they’re not on Ashley Williams’ side here, at least not entirely. Her first demand, that Hillary apologize for mass incarceration that many blame on the 1994 crime bill that then-President Bill Clinton signed into law, is somewhat moot because the Clintons have already done that, and because apologizing for it won’t fix it. Hillary never voted for that bill, although as First Lady, she did stump for it.
Part of that effort was to give a speech in 1996 (not 1994) in which she did, indeed, use the term “Superpredators,” but context is important here. This was one line in a speech about a broader agenda, in which the issue of crime was at the end of a long list, and in which she advocated community policing in literally the same breath. Here’s what she actually said:
Now, it’s true that the term “Superpredator” came to have racial connotations, but at the time, it was an accepted bit of pop criminology jargon, so while it wasn’t necessarily a good look for Hillary, she in fact did not “call black people Superpredators.” She didn’t even throw in any extra code-words like “urban” or “inner-city.” She was clearly attempting a narrow use of the term, and as ill-advised as that was, it wasn’t what she’s been accused of since. Her advocacy for the crime bill, which she was fairly obligated to do, has also been overblown. The two examples usually given are small parts of remarks about other issues that are clearly more of a priority to her.
Unfortunately, Hillary has been the subject of a smear campaign on this issue by Bernie Sanders surrogate Ben Jealous, who uses this single example to say that Hillary was “pushing the Superpredator theory.” Speaking of context, though, even Jealous concedes that “everyone,” including black leaders and communities, “lost their mind” over “urban violence” in the 1990s, which led to things like the crime bill.
This was a missed opportunity for Hillary Clinton, and not her first prickly encounter with BLM activists. She should have had a ready response, especially given the air that Ben Jealous has been pumping into this. She should be ready when someone asks again.
It was also a missed opportunity for Williams, though. It’s difficult to imagine any civil rights-era activist ingeniously engineering an audience with one of the most powerful people in the world, and using it to demand an apology for something they said twenty years ago, or for a policy they had little or nothing to do with. This wasn’t so much activism as it was oppovism, an attempt to take Hillary Clinton down a peg. On that count, it was a marginal success, but also a marginal accomplishment.
Update: Hillary responded to the criticism Wednesday to The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart:
In that speech, I was talking about the impact violent crime and vicious drug cartels were having on communities across the country and the particular danger they posed to children and families. Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.
My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society. Kids who never got the chance they deserved. And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven’t done right by them. We need to. We need to end the school to prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline.
As an advocate, as First Lady, as Senator, I was a champion for children. And my campaign for president is about breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of all kids, so every one of them can live up to their God-given potential.
That’s the B-minus answer. The A answer is “I’m sorry I used that language,” delivered to a real reporter on-camera, not in print to a pro-Hillary columnist.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.