The Washington Post

Hillary Clinton was surprisingly bold on Ferguson

A protestor runs down the street to escape tear gas fired at demonstrators on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. As night fell Sunday in Ferguson, another peaceful protest quickly deteriorated after marchers pushed toward one end of a street. Police attempted to push them back by firing tear gas and shouting over a bullhorn that the protest was no longer peaceful. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

Progressives really, really, really wanted to hear from Hillary Clinton on the events in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9, sparking days of unrest in that small city outside St. Louis and elsewhere.

Al Sharpton said he wanted to smoke Clinton out on Ferguson and suggested that if she ran in 2016, he would be a thorn in her side on civil rights issues.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes thought it was “bizarre” that Clinton hadn’t at least weighed in with a statement on the incident, even though she hasn’t made a habit of offering up opinions on much of anything outside of formal interviews and speeches. (She didn’t release a statement on the beheading of Jim Foley by ISIS, for instance)

Well, she finally addressed Ferguson on Thursday, during a prepared speech, and it turns out that her comments were among the most substantive compared to what other political leaders have said.

Whereas most Democrats and Republicans, and eventually President Obama, addressed the militarization of the police, Clinton actually went there on an issue that most avoided: racism and the criminal justice system.


At her speech at the Nexenta OpenSDx Summit in San Francisco, she said “we cannot ignore the inequities that persist in our justice system.” And then she did what few of her prominent fellow white Democrats have done in the context of Ferguson–she acknowledged the well-known statistics that show that blacks get treated differently than whites when it comes to everything from traffic stops to sentencing. But rather than just listing the statistics, she got personal by asking whites to put themselves in the shoes of black Americans:

Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers instead of the other way around. If white offenders received prison sentences ten percent longer than black offenders for the same crimes. If a third of all white men – just look at this room and take one-third – went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans in so many of the communities in which they live.

Her statements in many ways echo those of Sen. Rand Paul’s who also imagined himself as Michael Brown, mouthing off at a cop as a teen, but with a very different outcome based on race. Both Paul and Clinton went further in their statements than Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Obama, who in his third statement on Ferguson, touched on black crime rates, and only allowed that there might be sentencing disparities and differential treatment for blacks in the criminal justice system. Paul and Clinton’s boldness on racism and the criminal justice system is a risky and bold move, given the wide divide in how blacks and whites think about and experience race. Yes, it’s easier for whites to talk about racism than it is for blacks (witness Obama), but in asking whites to change their thinking about race and to essentially imagine themselves as black, both Paul and Clinton are doing something that has rarely been done in national politics in the last decade. Progressives, fueled by buyer’s remorse over Obama, are set on portraying Clinton as too moderate, ignoring, for instance, that she actually ran to the left of Obama on health care, and has spoken out, in formal settings, on voting rights as well. Some progressives noticed her comments on Ferguson, but even as they praised her, they questioned her motives:

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.



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