Bill Clinton spars with protesters at a rally last week in Philadelphia. Credit: Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

With a wag of his finger last Thursday, Bill Clinton admonished Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia to “Tell the truth.”

That was rich. Clinton telling others to be truthful is like Donald Trump exhorting everyone to be more humble—one thinks of the intern that Slick Willie didn’t really have sexual relations with, and the pot he tried in college but never inhaled. And there’s also the opportunism that has marked his political career—a willingness to say and do whatever the polls suggested should be said and done. As Clinton has always known too well, the truth doesn’t really set you free, and it certainly doesn’t get you elected.

“I like protesters, but the ones who won’t let you answer are afraid of the truth,” Clinton said at the campaign rally for Hillary in Philly. The protesters in the crowd were waving signs and shouting at him, and Clinton was putting them on notice: the ex-president with the mic was about to speak truth to the powerless.

The signs and shouts made it clear that the protesters’ targets were Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, as well as Hillary’s support of his get-tough policies in a 1996 speech in which she warned of a new, menacing brand of youngster—”super-predators” who had “no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Bill Clinton has since voiced regrets about the role his crime bill played in swelling the nation’s prison population, and Hillary has said she wishes she hadn’t used the language she did.

At the rally last week, however, the former president couldn’t resist defending the crime bill. “Let’s just tell the whole story,” he said, and then he broke it down for the protesters: early on, his proposed bill banned assault weapons and called for 100,000 more police, and even allotted some money for programs for inner-city kids. But senator Joe Biden, then chair of the judiciary committee, told him that Republicans would kill the bill if severe sentencing provisions weren’t added to it. “And nobody wanted it to die,” Clinton said.

Perhaps Clinton was misremembering, because lots of people wanted the bill to die. The crucial exception was Clinton. Urban crime had been rampant in the 1980s and early 90s, and Clinton wanted to show voters he was doing something about it—even if that something was superficial, and ignored root causes such as poverty and segregation.

But the “whole story,” according to Clinton, was that he had no choice other than to include the draconian sentences that so many minority men, African-Americans especially, are still serving today. The crime bill also made it less likely that prisoners would spend their time productively, because it ended the awarding of Pell grants for higher education to any inmates, state or federal. 

Bruce Shapiro told more of the “whole story” in the Nation Monday: 

Back in the 1990s, crime was to Bill Clinton as illegal immigration is to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz today: a way of reassuring fearful, alienated white voters, especially in the South. Fear of offenders, fear of gangs, fear of ungovernable teenage “superpredators” (a supposed generational wolf-pack who never actually appeared): Those were the political currency of the era. Like other New Democrats, Clinton had years earlier decided that the party’s best hope to win those voters back into the fold was to align themselves with a more conservative criminal-justice policy. . . Fear of crime was the beating heart of Bill Clinton’s domestic policy.

At the Philadelphia rally, Clinton went on to maintain that the harsh sentences resulting from his bill were often justified, because of the loathsome brand of criminal who ended up serving them:

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children,” he said to the protesters. “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.”

But gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out to murder could be characterized as almost nonexistent. It’s another super-predator stereotype that distracts from more ordinary and pervasive problems. A study of homicides in New York City in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic, found that only 1.2 percent of them involved the use of crack by the offender. The study didn’t specify whether any of these killings were committed by young juveniles, let alone young juveniles “hopped up on crack” by gang leaders. But about 40 percent of the homicides were related to the black market in drugs—a market created by government policies that continues to provoke rampant violence today, and that was unaddressed by Clinton’s crime bill.

If one wants to blame violence on the physical effects of a drug, as Clinton did with his “hopped up on crack” allusion, one needn’t single out a drug that was largely used by poor blacks. In the March-April issue of the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior, a broad review of studies of recreational drug use and aggression concluded that “The drug most highly associated with physical, psychological, verbal, and sexual aggression is also the most readily and legally available (and sold by governments for profit)—alcohol.”

But asserting that some gang leaders got 13-year-olds hopped up on beer and sent them out to kill doesn’t conjure up as frightening a stereotype.

If Clinton really had been honest, either in 1994 or last week, he would have said: “I don’t know how you’d characterize a country that’s gotten African-American kids so hopped up on the toxic pills of segregation, concentrated poverty, the drug war, and bleak futures, that some of them end up killing other African-American children.” That truth hurts, but it needs to be spoken.