The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Clinton gets heated with Black Lives Matter protesters over his crime bill

Watch: Bill Clinton criticizes Black Lives Matter protesters at rally (Video: Reuters)

Near the height of the crime wave that blanketed the United States and suffocated D.C. in the early 1990s, The Post ran a front-page article about an 11-year-old girl named Jessica Bradford.

Bradford, the article began, "knows five people who have been killed. It could happen to her, she says, so she has told her family that if she should get shot before her sixth-grade prom, she wants to be buried in her prom dress. ... She has known since she was in fifth grade what she wanted to wear at her funeral. 'I think my prom dress is going to be the prettiest dress of all,' Jessica said. 'When I die, I want to be dressy for my family.'"

A few days later, newly elected President Bill Clinton spoke at a black church in Memphis, Tenn. In the speech, he plugged NAFTA and healthcare reform. But he also focused on the country's crime problem, and mentioned the article about Bradford.

"The other day on the front page of our paper, the nation's capital, are we talking about world peace or world conflict?," he asked. "No, big article on the front page of the Washington Post about an 11-year-old child planning her funeral: 'These are the hymns I want sung. This is the dress I want to wear. I know I'm not going to live very long.' That is not the freedom, the freedom to die before you're a teenager is not what Martin Luther King lived and died for."

The next year, Congress passed and he signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 -- a bill that, among other things, increased the number of people in prison and the length of their incarcerations.

As his wife runs to take his old position, Clinton has frequently found himself playing defense on the decisions he made as president. On Thursday, at a rally in Pennsylvania, he was forced to address Black Lives Matter protesters who confronted him on his crime bill. And as he did in making the case in 1993, Clinton brought up Jessica Bradford.

"I like protesters," he began, "but the ones who won't let you answer are afraid of the truth."

"Here's what happened. Let's just tell the whole story," he said. "When I became president, the headlines in the newspapers were full of ..." He was interrupted, and changed tack.

"Vice President Biden ... he was the chairman of the committee that had jurisdiction over this crime bill," he continued. "I had an assault weapons ban in it. I had money for inner-city kids for out-of-school activities. We had 110,000 police officers so we could put people on the street and not in these military vehicles and police would look like the people they were policing.

"We did all of that. And Biden said, 'You can't pass this bill. The Republicans will kill it if you don't put more sentencing in.' I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought black lives mattered. They said, 'Take this bill because our kids are being shot in the streets by gangs.' We had 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals. She" -- referring to the protester -- "don't want to hear any of that."

He later added: "You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter," apparently referring to a protester's sign mentioning Hillary Clinton's contemporaneous comments about "superpredators." She herself has expressed regret for the comment, though her husband went in a different direction.

Those comments were something of a change of position for Clinton, who earlier in this cycle appeared to walk back his role in the increased incarceration that, as Clinton conceded on Thursday, President Obama was trying to undo. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it," he said at an NAACP gathering last July.

His tone on Thursday was very different, demanding that the crowd and the protesters understand the political moment during which the bill was developed. Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted on Twitter that this argument wasn't necessarily incorrect, but it misread the moment.

It's clear that Clinton would rather defend his decisions than lament them. Armed with a microphone and 20 years of experience talking about his crime bill, he was easily able to overpower the day's protesters. But the record of the bill is far more mixed than he presented it to that crowd. In addition to the increases in incarceration that he admits were problematic, he has also made dubious claims about the effect of those additional police on the crime rate. The bill also expanded crimes that were eligible for the death penalty -- a policy issue that his wife is now trying to reconcile during her campaign.

The former president later looped another defense of his past policies into his comments. He analogized the misunderstanding of his crime bill to Republican assertions that his administration helped create the conditions that led to the recession.

"You know why they tried to blame me? Because we enforced something called the Community Reinvestment Act," he said, "which led to $800 billion being loaned in neighborhoods like this. ... So when they caused the crash by having nobody home at the regulatory agencies, they said, 'If Bill Clinton hadn't made us loan money to all these African-American and Latino and immigrant neighborhoods, we'd be peachy-keen."

"They were wrong, too," he said of the Republicans. Then, pointing to the protesters, he added: "Just like them."

For Clinton, those protesters -- perhaps even younger than Jessica Bradford is today -- simply don't understand what the political moment was like in 1993. The protesters would probably argue that the same could be said of Clinton about the political moment today.