It happened rather quickly.
Ashley Williams showed up Wednesday at a private fundraiser in Charleston, S.C., where former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in the middle of delivering what may well have been the umpteenth stump speech including the phrase “criminal justice reform.”
That was enough to spur Williams, a youthful-looking African American activist from Charlotte, to start speaking. She was talking over Clinton and aiming to disrupt the relative peace of a paid-entry fundraiser with a pointed question about Clinton’s actual record on criminal justice — specifically, the language she used to advocate for her husband's tough-on-crime, long-on-incarceration 1994 bill as an unusually politically active first lady.
“I'm not a ‘super-predator,’ Hillary Clinton,” Williams said. “Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?” Williams asks while brandishing a sign that read, “We have to bring them to heel.”
Williams hardly got out a few thoughts before people in the fundraiser audience — reportedly a $500-a-head minimum deal — started shushing or hissing, grumbling, and reprimanding Williams just loud enough that the rest of what she has to say is not at all easy to hear. It sounds like someone says “You are trespassing” — a rather bold assumption. Williams didn’t. She paid the money to attend the shindig. Someone else says, “You are being rude,” “This is inappropriate,” and someone else says “Let her speak.” It’s not clear if the “her” that last person referred to was Clinton or Williams.
Of course, every part of Williams’s short-lived protest was a reference to actual language that Clinton used in another speech. That one happened in 1996 when Clinton was on the stump advancing President Bill Clinton’s criminal justice reforms. That’s true of the “super-predator” language Williams mentioned. That’s true of the phrase, “We have to bring them to heel.” And although, Williams didn't mention it, Clinton’s 1996 speech included some language about these so-called super-predators implying that they were a generation of guilt- and compassion-free sociopaths who, in the interest of society, simply had to be contained.
Back to Wednesday and that moment in South Carolina brought to us by Williams.
Clinton seemed audibly and visibly irritated, saying she would answer if allowed to speak and then, even more notably, “that no one had ever asked her that before.” Then, Clinton essentially moved on with her regularly scheduled fundraising program. There was no accounting, partial or full, for her 1996 position nor how she arrived at her 2016 stance on criminal justice reform. Moving on.
Williams’s short-lived protest probably would have faded into the large and voluminous annals of unrecorded campaign trail “hecklers” if this weren’t the age of the cellphone video camera and a whole host of people who seem almost constantly prepared to point, shoot and share. Williams was, after all, ultimately removed by the Secret Service.
But alas, the video is out there. People are talking and writing about it. And on Thursday, Clinton decided to offer an apology for using that “super-predator” and “brought to heel” language. In the 1990s both were part of a relatively popular but now largely discredited theory about rising youth crime.
However, were it not for Williams and that homemade black-and-white sign, the rather vast gap between what Clinton says today about the criminal justice system and the content and aims of Clinton’s lobbying efforts in the 1990s probably would not get much attention outside of a few long pieces reviewing Clinton’s record.
And almost certainly, there would be little written or said in daily campaign coverage about what that Clinton crime bill did. To be clear, it made the nation’s already-elevated incarceration rate far, far worse. It stripped those convicted of drug crimes of all sorts of post-prison help, including federal student loans, making recidivism all the more likely. And that’s just a quick list.
But day to day, when Clinton is on the campaign trail or grants a few moments to the press, this seeming 180 really hasn’t been given a great deal of attention. Neither has the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton’s opponent but then a member of the House of Representatives, voted for Clinton’s crime bill.
The real beauty of Williams’s protest is that, in putting Clinton’s actual 1996 words out there, she not only forced that gap back into the headlines, but she will almost certainly force a candidate trying very hard right now to win every black vote that she can to make firm and clear commitments about what she will do differently if elected and why.
Of course, Clinton has, as she said at that South Carolina fundraiser, made speeches about criminal justice reform over the life of the 2016 campaign. But now that she’s been directly and quite publicly confronted, the odds that this topic will get more attention from both the Clinton and Sanders campaign are rather high.
Here’s the other genius bit of Williams’s protest: With just a few words, Williams reminded America that the reasons the old tough-on-crime thing so dominated 1990s politics is not simply that crime was far higher than it is today. Talking tough and advocating for long, mandatory prison terms; and denigrating and dismissing the humanity of those involved, has been a valuable political tactic deployed by politicians in both major parties. And, that’s been a particularly effective tactic with white voters, because in the United States there are a whole host of persistent stereotypes about race and criminality.
Those notions have long served as justification for all manner of injustice, exclusion and exploitation. And that, in turn, has helped to maintain a very real relationship between poverty and race, seeded elevated crime in some communities and helped to justify even more, and possibly less thoughtful, “lock them up and throw away the key” public policy. In essence, those very stereotypes have both helped to rationalize and create the undeniably massive and racially disproportionate incarceration that exists in the United States today.
That last bit is not an opinion. That's among the conclusions reached in a huge, many-year National Academy of Sciences study published in 2014. The group of researchers involved concluded that mass incarceration has been a massive source of public harm. It may cause more crime than it prevents, damage the families and neighborhoods that supply most of the country's prison population, and consume such big chunks of state budgets that effective poverty and crime-alleviating programs seem infeasible. Some rural communities now have entire economies built and sustained by prisons filled with people from mostly urban areas.
And that, for quite some time, was very good politics for both Republicans and Democrats.
Williams made almost all of this part of this week’s news simply by standing up, deploying her voice and a sign. She is part of a largely unsung, sometimes physically assaulted, more often shamed and ridiculed group of protesters who in the course of the 2016 campaign have faced the wrath of private and public security agents, other voters and, sometimes, the candidates themselves.
Donald Trump has justified and sanctioned a physical beat-down and a protester boot-out. And, while extreme, Trump is not really alone.
There have, in fact, been several moments this campaign cycle in which Sanders — the man who can’t stop reminding us that he was a tried, true and genuinely arrested mid-century radical — has stormed off stages or threatened to do so when peaceful protesters got vocal. Clinton has tried to instruct protesters and rather polite interlocutors on how they should seek to advance their cause. Reporters are also guilty here, focusing over and over again on the so-called “disruptions” caused by peaceful protesters at campaign events rather than the substance of protesters’ complaints and causes.
On top of that, a generation of mostly baby boomer candidates and voters who lived through and possibly participated in the civil disobedience of the 1960s and 1970s have gained the ability to plunk down $500 for a political fundraiser and it seems, lost any substantive memory of how disruptive effective peaceful political protests typically must be to have any effect at all.
For some odd and deeply telling reason, the disruption caused by these campaign 2016 moments has, in the mind of some public figures and — judging from the shushing in that Clinton fundraiser audience or the far worse violence and threats of violence at Trump events — voters too, somehow become a social and political offense unto itself. For too many Americans, it is as if impertinence and disruption are as bad if not worse than mass incarceration, alleged police misconduct or any other number of social problems altering people's lives.
Williams provided a reminder to Americans this week of just how twisted that logic really is.