By the next day, Bill Clinton was feeling remorse. Almost.
“Now I like and believe in protests,” he explained to an audience at Penn State Behrend. “But I never thought I should drown anybody else out. … So I did something yesterday in Philadelphia. I almost want to apologize for it, but I want to use it as an example of the danger threatening our country.”
That danger, said the former president, is the inability to have respectful discussions with those with whom we disagree.
“We’ve got to stop that in this country,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to each other again.”
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The reference was to an incident Thursday wherein the 42nd president, while campaigning to help his wife Hillary become the 45th, got into a shouting match with Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia. Had this been a Trump rally, the protesters would have been beaten up, so we can at least be thankful the incident ended without stitches or icepacks.
Not to say it wasn’t ugly. In a sometimes angry exchange, Clinton defended himself against hecklers’ charges that the crime bill he signed in 1994, with its harsher sentencing, new prison construction, three strikes rule and revocation of education grants for inmates, helped fuel the mass incarceration crisis that has decimated the African-American community.
That’s nothing but true, as Clinton himself acknowledged in a speech last summer before the NAACP. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” he said. “And I want to admit it.”
He should have stuck with that. Thursday’s confrontation was light on contrition and long on finger wagging. Clinton reminded protesters that the bill in question was signed in an era of lurid headlines about gangs shooting children.
“You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter,” he shouted.
He credited the bill with dropping the nation’s crime rate to historic lows, which is a dubious claim. As PolitiFact has since observed, the crime rate was already falling when the bill was enacted.
Clinton also noted that the bill was passed with the support of at least some African-American leaders. That part, at least, is true; it was also supported by his wife and her chief rival, Bernie Sanders. Even so, it would be naive to believe opportunism did not play a part in Clinton’s signing the bill. After all, it gave him the perfect retort to Republicans who accused him of being “soft on crime.”
Now, 22 years later, the bill is back in the news and the ex-president wants to use an argument about it as an example of political incivility? Yes, that is a gnawing concern. But if Clinton thinks it’s the key takeaway from last week’s confrontation, he is missing the point.
It is immaterial whether he and those protesters ever apologize for talking over one another.
Who’s going to apologize for all the nonviolent African-American offenders who have lost decades of their lives behind bars while white offenders who had the same records and committed the same crimes went free? Or for children sentenced to live in motherless homes and eat at fatherless tables? Or for the fact that the land of the free now has the highest incarceration rate on Earth?
Who will apologize that a community already withstanding high rates of poverty, unemployment and neglect has been hollowed out by an ill-conceived law?
Who will apologize? More importantly, who will work to change it?
That’s the question for which African Americans and all voters who care about justice must demand answers. “I almost want to apologize,” doesn’t cut it. It’s weaselly and ultimately, it’s not even on topic. If he truly desires to be forthright and to engage the people his crime bill has injured, then what the ex-president needs to say should be obvious:
“I passed a bad law. Here’s how Hillary will fix it.”
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.