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Ashley Williams interrupted Hillary Clinton at a private event by unfurling a banner with the phrase "we have to bring them to heel" – a reference to comments she made in the 1990s while supporting a criminal reform bill pushed by her husband President Bill Clinton.

Ashley Williams interrupted Hillary Clinton at a private event by unfurling a banner with the phrase "we have to bring them to heel" – a reference to comments she made in the 1990s while supporting a criminal reform bill pushed by her husband President Bill Clinton. (Image: Screenshot/Youtube)

Forget What Hillary Said in the 1990s. It’s Her Current Positions That Trouble Me.

The fact that a “progressive” lawyer like Hillary Clinton supports the death penalty in 2016 is incomprehensible.

Ben Jealous

Many of Secretary Clinton’s supporters have suggested that there is no significant difference between her record and that of Bernie Sanders on criminal justice.  They say, “He supported the 1994 crime bill too.”

They miss the point.

The biggest problem with Hillary Clinton’s record on criminal justice is not the bills she helped her husband push in the 1990s.  It is the positions she has taken, and continues to take, as a candidate for president in 2008 and in 2016.

Let’s be honest, a lot of leaders made bad calls on crime bills in the early 1990s. Two of the African-American members of Congress supporting Clinton today, for example, relented and allowed the 1994 bill to come to a vote despite their well-founded objections. 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it. Even many civil rights organizations took bad positions on this and other bills.

No, the problem with Hillary Clinton is not that she, like so many others, was wrong back when her husband was president.

The problem is that she is wrong now. She took bad positions in 2008. She is taking bad positions in 2016.  And she often stands alone among Democratic presidential contenders in these serious lapses of judgment.

In 2008 she was the only one of six Democratic presidential primary candidates to oppose providing retroactive relief to addicts who were given long sentences for possessing crack cocaine, should those sentences be made much shorter like those given for possessing powder cocaine.  By 2008 sentencing disparities had disproportionately affected female addicts, often Black mothers, increasing the mass incarceration of black women and the warehousing of Black children in foster care.

Given the harsh reality of this nightmare for so many already-arrested women and their children who were often condemned to foster care, it was startling to see a Democratic presidential primary candidate oppose helping them.  Only Republican presidential candidates shared her position at the time. (Many mainstream Republicans eventually changed their position, and eventually so did Clinton.)

Today, in 2016, Hillary Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate who supports the death penalty.  Her position is far outside the progressive mainstream and contrary to the very notion that “Black Lives Matter.”

Bernie Sanders has always opposed the death penalty.  His opposition is undergirded by his awareness of its disproportionate use on Black and Brown people, its almost exclusive use on the poor, and the historic connection between the death penalty and lynching.  Indeed, it has been factors like these, and the notorious execution of Troy Davis in Georgia despite mountains of evidence of his innocence, that have motivated six Democratic governors, including Martin O’Malley, to abolish the death penalty in their state since 2008.

The fact that a “progressive” lawyer like Hillary Clinton supports the death penalty in 2016 is incomprehensible. Once again, she is alone among Democratic presidential contenders in taking such a backward position on this serious matter of racial justice and human rights.

Finally, there is her ongoing unwillingness to take a courageous stand of the issue of police violence and mayoral accountability in Chicago.

Black civil rights activists have been outraged for months by evidence which suggests that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who has a long history with the Clintons, may have had a role in suppressing footage of the killing of an unarmed black man by the Chicago police department until after he was re-elected.

Many in the Black community and beyond have called for Emanuel to resign.  Bernie Sanders, who as a student was a civil rights activist in that city, has said anyone involved in suppressing information about the killing should be held accountable.  He has said that he doesn’t want Emanuel’s support, and that “any elected official with knowledge that the tape was being suppressed or improperly withheld should resign.”

Secretary Clinton, by contrast, said that Emanuel “loves Chicago, and I’m confident that he’s going to do everything he can to get to the bottom of these issues and take whatever measures are necessary to remedy them.” A month later she moderated that position, but only slightly, saying that “Mayor Emanuel has said that he is committed to complete and total reform and I think he should be held to that standard.”



That is not the forthright call for justice that Laquan McDonald and other Chicago victims of police violence deserve.

No, my belief that Hillary Clinton is not the Democratic Party’s best presidential candidate has nothing to do with things she did or said in the 1990s. It has everything to do with the positions she continues to take now.


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Ben Jealous

Ben Jealous

Ben Jealous is former president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. He is the 2018 Democratic nominee for Governor of Maryland.

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