For me this post is fraught. I am going somewhere that makes me anxious and fills me with mixed feelings, especially dread: to defend Bill Clinton in his recent confrontation with Black Lives Matters. It is not that I disagree with them about the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act that led to the over-incarceration of too many black youths. They are right in their criticism of the law’s consequences. And President Clinton was right to apologize for it last year.
I do, however, disagree with Salon that Bill Clinton’s response to the BLM hecklers this time was “cringe worthy.” In fact, from a historical point of view, he is not entirely wrong in his defense of his actions. Here’s what he told them:
“I had an assault weapons ban in it, I had money for inner-city kids for out-of-school activities, we had 110,000 police officers so … the police would look like the people they were policing,” Clinton argued, evidently uncomfortable with the line of questioning.
He said he “talked to a lot of African-American groups” who told him to “take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs,” adding, “We had 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals.”
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got thirteen-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children,” Bill Clinton told protesters Thursday. “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.”
On technical points, Clinton is right about the situation back in the 1990s. He made one factual error, though. The child who was planning her own funeral was not 13. She was 11. I will get back to that in a minute.
Unlike the young BLM hecklers, and possibly even Salon’s writer, Brendan Gauthier, I remember those times vividly. Even then, I was skeptical of the overly harsh sentences meted out by the 1994 law and the zero tolerance attitude, as I usually am about all-or- nothing solutions with no nuance to them. But I also am leery of condemning people’s actions for events ripped from their historical context. It is far too easy to see mistakes in hindsight. The old saw that hindsight is 20/20 has much truth. But if the law turned out to have dreadful consequences for the black community, many of those who supported it back in 1993 did so for the right reasons: to help the black community and its children who did seem under siege from violent crime and drug dealers. Their actions proved to be misguided, but their original intentions were good.
Here is a sample of a typical newspaper story back then. Many days, DC residents opened their newspapers to read heartbreaking tales like this one from the Washington Post’s DeNeen Brown about a young girl planning her own funeral, directing her parents that she wanted to be buried in the prom dress she thought she might not live long enough to wear at a prom:
“Jessica Bradford knows five people who have been killed. It could happen to her, she says, so she has told her family that if she should get shot before her sixth-grade prom, she wants to be buried in her prom dress.
“Jessica is 11 years old. She has known since she was in fifth grade what she wanted to wear at her funeral. ‘I think my prom dress is going to be the prettiest dress of all,’ Jessica said. ‘When I die, I want to be dressy for my family.’
“In the last five years, 224 children younger than 18 have been killed in the District either as targets of shootings or as bystanders. The carnage has been taken in by children who live close to the gunfire, such as Jessica, and by some children removed from it.”
Another author, Jim Myers, writing in The Atlantic, in March 2000. recounted the deaths of friends and acquaintances in DC and its suburbs:
” ‘I live about a mile from the U.S. Capitol, on the eastern edge of the Capitol Hill community that claims to be “Our Nation’s Neighborhood.” ‘The Victorian row houses on my street are charming; our trees are gloriously verdant. Military bands play on the Capitol steps on summer nights. But the pop-pop-pop of automatic-weapons fire is the tattoo we more often hear. Near my house in the 1990s we had drive-by killings, run-by killings, sneak-up killings, gunfights and battles, car chases. We had drug killings, vengeance killings, the killing of witnesses to other crimes, accidental killings, and killings that enforce values we can only vaguely fathom. We have had so many killings that our own values have been blasted askew.'”
As Myers’ poignant article demonstrates, back then a youthful Black Lives Matter movement would have decried the lack of justice when police failed to do their job and solve those drive-by shootings and grudge murders claiming their friends’ lives. The distinct message a young black person got back then was that their worth and their lives were not valued because the shooters were not caught or jailed.
“Teenagers and young adults frequently cite the unsolved homicides as a sort of official measure of their own worth or lack thereof. They reason that if they get murdered, nothing will happen to their murderers — therefore they must not count for much. ‘Nobody cares about us,’ the young people say, which is not good. When young people believe that nobody cares, they may become more reckless. A few act out their rage on the corner. But after the pop-pop-popping somebody does care — it’s obvious, if too late”
So, it was against that rising tide of concern and outright panic that Congress passed draconian legislation, signed into law by President Clinton. Legislation that ended up sweeping many low-level offenders, many nonviolent offenders, I might add, into decades long prison sentences, warehousing young blacks and ruining their lives and those of their families. The impact has been devastating to the black community and the individuals caught up in that net.
That needs to be corrected as much as is humanly possible, apologies made to the communities, pardons and releases of those still incarcerated, changes to the law so that it does not continue to happen, and all the help we can provide to rebuild those ruined lives to the greatest extent possible. And those who bear responsibility for that law need to admit their mistakes. Those who follow them into office must also make clear they understand the magnitude of the errors made and pledge to learn from them, to never repeat them.
One thing, however, that also needs to happen is that the political leaders who caused this should also be forgiven. Forgiven, not excused. There is a difference. There is no excuse, looking back, for what was done now that we know better. But if you cannot forgive those who acted out of genuine concern and with the best information they had at the time, and who now truly are contrite, you become part of the problem, choosing to carry a heavy grudge that will sit on your own shoulders while improving nothing.
What forgiving gives you, instead, is the ability to move forward. To work with those who actually might have learned from their own past mistakes and will have better ideas and be better people for owning up to those errors in judgment. To forgive is to open up possibilities. To remain unforgiving is to shut the door on opportunities to work together to build a better future, one where black lives are not taken in unsolved drive by shootings and not lost to draconian laws and harsh prison sentences for minor infractions. A future where all black lives matter. And all black lives are valued and treated with justice and fairness.