Unfurling a banner that read "We have to bring them to heel," Williams wanted the Democratic presidential candidate to "explain for the record" why she "called black youth 'superpredators'." Before Williams was escorted out of the event, she asked, "How come you didn't address that in the prior debate?" Clinton replied, "You know what? Nobody's ever asked me before. You're the first person to ask me and I'm happy to address it." Clinton never got the chance to. Williams was gone.
So, I asked Clinton for a response. Here's what she told me in full.
In that speech, I was talking about the impact violent crime and vicious drug cartels were having on communities across the country and the particular danger they posed to children and families. Looking back, I shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today.
My life's work has been about lifting up children and young people who've been let down by the system or by society. Kids who never got the chance they deserved. And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven't done right by them. We need to. We need to end the school to prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline.
As an advocate, as First Lady, as Senator, I was a champion for children. And my campaign for president is about breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of all kids, so every one of them can live up to their God-given potential.
"That speech" was a 1996 address at New Hampshire's Keene State College in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, otherwise known as the crime bill. In her remarks, then-first lady Clinton said, "They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'superpredators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."
This isn't the broad brush Clinton's critics today are accusing her of using 20 years ago. Despite Williams's assertion that "I know you called black youth 'superpredators,'" Clinton was clearly talking about a narrow band of young people who would not have included the admirably assertive Williams or the vast majority of African American youths then and now. And in light of the overarching fear of crime across the United States back in the 1990s, Clinton's going out of her way to define "superpredator" as a kid with "no conscience, no empathy" is noteworthy.
Also noteworthy is Clinton saying then, "We can talk about why they ended up that way." I highlight that because Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton's presidential campaign rival and then a member of the House, gave an impassioned floor speech in 1994 raising questions about cause and effect.
Mr. Speaker, it is my firm belief that clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them. But it is also my view that through the neglect of our Government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence.
The 1994 crime bill, the statute that many African Americans single out as the cause of mass incarceration of blacks over the past 20 years and that many in the criminal justice field view as a mistake, passed the House with 235 votes. Sanders joined 188 Democrats and 46 Republicans in voting "aye."
No one would question Sanders's commitment to justice before or after he voted for the crime bill. Nor should anyone do the same to Clinton, who didn't even have a vote. Sure, her words sting in the light of 2016, but they should not blind anyone to what she did before and after she uttered those 42 words in the span of 12 seconds.
At the time Clinton was speaking, she was talking about body cameras, which is part of Clinton's criminal justice platform that she first outlined in a major address last April. The same speech where she said, "It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration."
Pushing Clinton on her past statements as Williams did is eminently fair. What isn't fair is ignoring what Clinton promises to do to fix the glaring problems unleashed by a bill Sanders voted for and Clinton's husband signed into law.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj