Former President Bill Clinton’s stump speech for Hillary Clinton at Emanuel Recreation Center in East Mt. Airy was derailed Thursday by persistent protesters who questioned his legacy on criminal justice.
Philadelphia native Erica Mines and a few others close to the stage chanted and held signs attacking Clinton’s record in the White House.
“Whoa. Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” said Clinton, asking them several times if he could respond to their accusations. But they repeatedly yelled over him. The protesters were admonished by Clinton supporters, and they even started an “H-R-C” counter-chant, but Bill Clinton wanted to face off with the hecklers himself.
He put aside the pitch for his wife — “my case for Hillary is really straight-forward” — and engaged with the protesters for nearly 15 minutes.
He got most heated when talking about his tough-on-crime policies that critics say swelled the country’s prison population. Specifically, Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that bolstered police forces, built dozens of new prisons and enacted longer mandatory sentences.
Hillary Clinton’s support of the bill has been criticized by advocates for criminal justice reforms. Her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, voted for the bill. Both have since distanced themselves from the legislation.
On Thursday, the former president doubled down on it.
“I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought black lives matter. They said take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the streets by gangs. We have 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals,” Clinton said, citing record-low homicide rates and decreasing gun violence that he says resulted from the law.
One of the protesters held a sign that read “black youth are not super predators,” referencing a 1996 speech Hillary Clinton gave suggesting that an entire generation of youth might just rampage in cities across the country, committing violent crimes without remorse if they’re not contained. She has apologized for the comment, saying she wouldn’t make it today.
Bill Clinton, however, didn’t appear contrite in addressing the issue, stressing that the bill was passed in an era when violent crime rates were high, not to mention fears that crime-plagued communities would never recover.
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack, sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children,” Clinton said. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens … You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.”
Afterward, Mines, who said she was not connected with any organization, elaborated about why she wanted to hijack Clinton’s stump speech. Mines, who said she once volunteered for the Obama campaign, now supports neither Sanders nor Clinton. She said she doesn’t plan to vote in the primary or the general election.
Still, she said Hillary Clinton has been increasingly devoted to courting black community leaders to win the black vote.
“But she also called black youth predators at one point. She also is for the death penalty. You cannot be against police brutality and for the death penalty at the same time,” Mines said. “That is a contradiction. She does not deserve the black vote at all.”
No protesters were arrested or ejected during the event.
Mellicent Ingram was standing next to Mines. She thought the screaming approach was less than productive.
“I even came to her and said, ‘Sister, we hear you, we hear you.’ But don’t act ignorant,” said Ingram, a Hillary supporter.
It was a sentiment shared by other black Philadelphians at the event. Ty Jenkins Sr. said he came to the event after losing faith in Sanders when he launched negative attacks at Hillary Clinton.
He spoke as if addressing the Vermont senator.
“Now you’re getting off track,” he said of Sanders’ attacks on his Democratic opponent. “Now you’re starting to lose people like me. I was there for you, man. It’s getting to the point now, the disrespect and disdain coming from your campaign and your supporters, and so bad, to the point you would say that our [former] secretary of State is not qualified to be president?”
As Bill Clinton left the event, Melvin Barnes watched him wave at fans crowded all around. Barnes lives right across the street from the recreation center where the event was held. His only wish for 2016? That Bill Clinton was running.
“They always have loved Bill Clinton,” Barnes said, smiling as a group of young men jumped to get a photo of him. “When he was president they loved Bill Clinton. If he would’ve run for a third term, he would’ve made it.”