This week afforded a great opportunity that was, of course, squandered by the mainstream media, as coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter protesters who disrupted former President Bill Clinton's speech in Philadelphia on Thursday mainly centered around the moments of conflict, when there was a mountain of great substance to glean from the encounter. Even better, though, is that in addition to the 11-minute engagement at the speech, we have Roland Martin drilling down on the other side by interviewing the two protesters, Rufus Farmer and Erica Mines, as well.
Let me first say that President Clinton deserves tremendous credit for engaging the protesters, who stayed until the very end of the speech, although there was a little bit of scuffling with security after the speech was over:
There's a lot to unpack here, so let's start with the bad stuff. Although Bill was very good about engaging the protesters, even inviting them to share more of their critique-festooned signs with him at one point, he erased a lot of that good by telling them things like "hush" and "you'll never learn anything while you're talking.":
One of the moments that the media did single out was this one, in which Bill ill-advisedly defended Hillary over a remark that she's already apologized for, the "Superpredators" line from a 1996 speech. Now, there is a somewhat complicated contextual argument to be made in Hilary's defense, but even she admits now that it was a bad word choice.
However, the protesters were parroting the lie that Hillary "called black people Superpredators," which is not true, even by implication. They were also shouting "Hillary Clinton should be charged for crimes against humanity." So Bill decided to make the point that Hillary was talking about gang leaders who enlisted and murdered young black men by accusing the protesters of defending murderers:
Some liberal commentators, including MSNBC's Chris Hayes, wrung their hands at Clinton's evocation of the 90's crack crime menace, but that's a big part of the context that even Hillary's opponents recognize: shit was bad.
One bit of utter horseshit that has been utterly ignored, however, was Clinton's terrible defense of welfare reform:
Essentially, he's saying that welfare reform was okay because the Clinton economy was great (debatable how much credit he gets for that), until Republicans came along and destroyed everything. Whatever you think about welfare reform, this argument not only ignores the fundamental fact that welfare is a safety net, it perfectly illustrates it. That's why we need a safety net, because Republicans will come along and fuck it all up.
More of a mixed bag is Clinton's defense of the crime bill, which is probably the best thing about this whole incident because it's a great distillation of what this election is about. One excellent point that he makes over and over again is that Hillary didn't work on this, didn't vote for it, and that her most animating policy activity as First Lady was on universal health care, so the extent to which she should have to answer for or take credit for the crime bill is highly debatable.
Now, part of his defense relies on crediting the crime bill with things that have questionable causation, but the heart of his argument is that the worst parts of the crime bill were a trade-off with Republicans to get the good things.
It's a pretty decent argument, especially if you were around in the nineties and remember how things were. As a liberal, it always pissed me off that Bill Clinton and his brand of Democrats held onto power by essentially being less anti-black, anti-LGBT, and anti-woman than Republicans, but I also recognized that the country being where it was, it would have been a lot worse without him. Republicans would have pushed through the sentencing and prison stuff either way.
I always thought, though, that Clinton went much further than he had to to keep straight white voters in the boat.
But that's kind of the choice being given to us this election, between a practical approach to (more ambitious) incremental change, and a revolution that could come up short and deliver nothing. The crime bill gave us the assault weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, more cops on the street (more on that later), and four more years of Bill Clinton instead of Bob Dole. But it also gave us mandatory minimums, more prisons, and aggravated the problem of mass incarceration.
The balance of the speech was spent talking about Hillary's work with the Children's Defense Fund and fighting school segregation in Alabama, things we've heard before, but which bear repeating. All in all, it was a very productive and substantive exchange. It should also remind people that without Black Lives Matter, there might not be a Hillary Clinton 2016, because without them, it's hard to imagine any mainstream politician campaigning so hard on such an ambitious pro-black policy agenda, which is a big reason Hillary has been able to regain so much of the trust and goodwill that had been swept away by the 2008 campaign.
Then, there was Roland Martin's interview of the two protesters, which was as tough on them as they were on Bill Clinton. What he uncovered was that there wasn't a whole lot of substance behind their objections, which is unfortunate, because one of the frequently-told lies about the Black Lives Matter movement is that they don't have specific policy asks. These two, though, really didn't.
In one particularly sharp exchange, Martin asked “What is it that you want Secretary Clinton to do?”, which would become a recurring theme in the nearly eleven-minute interview.
“First of all, we would like for Hillary Clinton to stop profiting off of people’s pain, specifically black women who have lost their loved ones to unarmed killings of black men and women,” Mines replied. Roland pressed her, and it turns out Hillary's limited support for the federal death penalty (which I disagree with) is somehow a profit center:
Death penalty aside, the additional police officers funded under the crime bill can hardly be blamed for bad policing. Whatever the problems between police and black communities are, they are not made better by having fewer police, they are made worse. It's also worth noting that in that Superpredators speech everyone attacks Hillary for, she was also advocating for the same kind of community policing initiatives that Barack Obama is today.
Martin then asked for specifics again, beyond renouncing a death penalty that isn't going to change until several generations of bloodthirsty Americans die off, and Mines said she wanted Hillary to realize that "just saying Black Lives Matter doesn't mean you're doing the right thing."
Now, whether you think she can deliver or not, Hillary Clinton has done a lot more than just say "Black Lives Matter," and since way before anyone was Feeling the Bern.
Roland, apparently not satisfied with the specifics offered, pressed for more (i.e. any) specifics. He wasn't offered much:
That's fine, though, it can be tough to get granular on a dime, but then, seconds after demanding that the Clintons own up to the damage done by the crime bill, Roland played them a clip of Bill Clinton owning up to the damage done by the crime bill:
This is very similar to the protester who confronted Hillary about the Superpredators remark a few months ago, who also didn't want anything other than to extract a pound of flesh from the Clintons over the crime bill.
Which is fine, those actions and words were extremely hurtful, but doing so under the banner of Black Lives Matter reinforces the wrong impression that the movement, as a whole, is about grievance, not solutions.