Hillary Clinton and the urban rebellion

April 30, 2015
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York

Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York, April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The immediate policy response to urban rebellion in Baltimore on Monday night came, somewhat surprisingly, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just launched her campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s first major policy speech made criminal-justice reform the core of her incipient campaign. She acknowledged that racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and Staten Island, New York, have revealed patterns of inequality that are “unmistakable and undeniable.” She drew from the work of policy scholars, most notably Michelle Alexander, who have documented mass incarceration’s broader impact on African-American communities and the larger society.

Protesters against police violence march towards the White House in Washington

Protesters against police violence march toward the White House in Washington, April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Years from now historians might label this speech as Clinton’s reverse “Sister Souljah” moment.

During Bill Clinton’s first run for the presidency, in 1992, he sought to establish his mainstream credibility by hijacking a Jesse Jackson Rainbow/PUSH conference and chastising black activist Sister Souljah for her provocative remarks about the Los Angeles riots. Now Hillary Clinton has used a predominantly white policy forum to implicitly repudiate the racist policies and politics that have shaped American urban policy over the past three decades.

Against a national political backdrop of thousands of police and National Guard troops patrolling Baltimore, Clinton publicly called for the end of mass incarceration in America. Is it a coincidence that Clinton was speaking on the 23rd anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising in the wake of the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King?

The former New York senator asked Americans to confront “hard truths about race and justice.” She listed the deaths of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, Ferguson’s Michael Brown, Cleveland’s Tamir Rice, South Carolina’s Walter Scott and Staten Island’s Eric Garner as part of a roll call of black men and children killed by the police.

President Clinton is applauded by lawmakers October 3 after a ceremony in the White House Rose Garde..

President Bill Clinton is applauded by lawmakers after signing three crime-related bills in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, October 3, 1996. REUTERS/Archive

Clinton was taking another step away from her husband’s political positions. President Bill Clinton played a leading role in advocating, implementing and normalizing “tough on crime” policies that ultimately amplified racial inequality in the U.S. criminal-justice system. Clinton administration programs redirected vital resources away from the urban poor and toward widespread prison construction and mandatory minimum sentences.  His punitive social policy made it increasingly difficult for ex-offenders to receive public housing, food stamps and other crucial support.

The brutal combination of the Clinton administration’s crime and welfare reform bills essentially relegated two generations of poor black people to the margins of American society. They help account for the 1.5 million “missing” black men that Hillary Clinton talked about in her powerful speech, citing a recent New York Times story.

Violence in Baltimore is the bitter harvest of public policy debates about the poor, black and young that African-Americans invariably lost during the past two generations. The shift from the hopeful, if poorly resourced, goals and ambitions of the Great Society programs of the 1960s gave way, by the 1980s and 1990s, to a bi-partisan embrace of neo-liberal crime policies that gutted the welfare state and created a racial caste system that has been identified as the “new Jim Crow.”

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The federal war on drugs insidiously shifted antipoverty resources toward the militarization of local police forces, the institutionalization of racial profiling and brutality and the criminalization of the entire black community. Poor blacks lacked the resources, education and opportunities to escape a growing criminal-justice dragnet. Instead, they found themselves caught in the nation’s ever-expanding prison gulag.

The disappearance of black men and women from urban areas is often cited as the direct result of policy choices, political scapegoating and media framing that normalizes black criminality, disparages young people as “thugs” and “gangstas,” and overlooks the systematic brutality and abuse from democratic institutions, including the police.

America’s unapologetic commitment to policies that have created institutional racism and de facto white supremacy is a major reason for the violence, looting and property damage that have been the focus of breathless media reports. This analysis ignores the role of state institutional violence in exacerbating tensions, as well as the inspiring behavior of thousands of community activists, civic leaders and students in maintaining peace through most of the city.

Hillary Clinton’s call for ending the new Jim Crow is the politically and morally correct decision. But it’s not enough. Ending mass incarceration will require enormous political will and economic resources to reorder the entire criminal-justice system.

Shutting down prisons, releasing nonviolent offenders, offering drug rehabilitation, housing, food and hope to communities of color are a small step on a long road toward full citizenship.

A protester throws a gas canister back at police during clashes at North Ave and Pennsylvania Ave in Baltimore

A protester throws a gas canister back at police during clashes at North Ave and Pennsylvania Ave in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Thaye​r

Baltimore, Ferguson and Staten Island exemplify the lack of equal and robust black citizenship in the United States. Equal citizens are not racially segregated, economically deprived and cut off (except via social media) from mainstream society. Nor are citizens demonized and dismissed for making mistakes, even violent ones. Consider the  national response to white college students and sports fans who routinely engage in mayhem and violence after winning or losing big games.

Clinton’s recognition of the decades-long grassroots movement to end the systematic incarceration of African-Americans may be considered historic, particularly if she’s elected president and follows through with her bold policy initiatives. The pain and anguish and desperate hope on display in Baltimore will then have contributed to the nation’s racial progress in unexpected and substantive ways.


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The welfare state was never “gutted” by Clinton, liberals, or anyone else. When Clinton left office 11% of the population was on welfare, and now about 23% of the U.S. population. Food stamp recipients are currently at record levels.
I agree that the criminal justice system has to be revamped to insure equal treatment for black men, especially in the area of drug crimes. But a caveat: many black politicians themselves supported those tougher drug laws decades ago because of the violence associated with street drug sales in black neighborhoods. And the crime rate declined after that, meaning black residents were safer.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Maybe a labor camps will fix the problem. Made in USA will be back on the store shelves and the criminals will acquire the skills needed to reintegrate into the society. First the jobs moved out and the crime moved in maybe the big corporations should be punished first as a cause for the problem. I don’t understand why the blacks rob the small business in their area during riots because even the few jobs left will be gone.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Baltimore crowd reaction shouldn’t be of any surprise given the relative dis-functional state of justice and accountability at large. It’ll help for DOJ to setup small offices in major cities to sniff out corruptive systemic social injustice at play and bring swift accountability to the related.

@Macedonian – right in pointing out the best way to deal with the issue for the long-term is to restore jobs.

Try putting an end to the senseless duty-free imports and other rather the gimmicks of ACA related part-time-job-splitting to show fictitious job growth. One candidate that seem to address this head-on seems to be – Mr.Donald Trump.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Why is the federal government getting involved in something called “Urban Policy?” Isn’t that what City/County/State governments are for? And if the target is racial justice, just say that. Was Ferguson “Urban?” Not really. The demographics are now urban = young and white. Old suburbs = poor/black. So at least get the dog whistle terms right. “Inner City” is an 80’s racist term.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Ferguson is very black, with the exception of its police force, its also very URBAN.
ST. Louis has a strange layout, but Ferguson is a 10 minute bus ride from the Arch.
Nor is “inner city” in any way a racist term.
Further, in all these cases, the city was liberal, most run by black council members and black mayors. In many cases the state is also run by a liberal democrat.
look at Baltimore, Marlyand and tell me I am wrong.
Most have been for years.
So put the dog-whistle away.

Posted by operaghost | Report as abusive

When you only hear your own voice, you tend to get lost in the echo chamber. Censorship is the tool of the fascist.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

After failed Arab Spring maybe American Spring will succeed?

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive