We confronted Bill Clinton about race: "In that moment he revealed himself and his true thoughts on black people"

EXCLUSIVE: #Blacklivesmatter activists who took Bill on tell us what it was like, and how Hillary backers responded

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 13, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Bill Clinton   (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Bill Clinton (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

During a Hillary Clinton rally in Philadelphia last week, Bill Clinton engaged in an 11-minute exchange with two protesters, Rufus Farmer and Erica Mines, who are critical of his controversial 1994 crime bill, the War on Drugs, and the impact of those policies on the black community.

In the midst of making repeated references to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Bill Clinton made the following statement: "You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. ... Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns."

I recently spoke with Farmer and Mines about their experience with the former president, their thoughts on his controversial comments about “Black Lives Matter,” “black crime,” Hillary Clinton, and the future-present of black activism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How long have the two of you been involved with social change work?

Rufus: I’ve been involved with organizing ever since the 2008 Obama campaign.

Erica: I’ve been involved for little over a year.

What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to become more politically involved? One event? Multiple events?

Rufus: There was a combination of events. The results of the Trayvon Martin case and how Zimmerman was not convicted had me very confused, upset and angry. Mike Brown happened, then Eric Garner. You have all these other victims of police violence as well, from Rekia Boyd to so many others. That is what pushed me over the edge. Erica and I didn’t know what black political organizations were out there. We then ended up as part of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice.

Erica: I started becoming more politically aware once I lost a family member in prison. My cousin was killed by county officers in a West Virginia county prison. He was sentenced to thirty-plus years for a non-violent crime and was put in a maximum security facility. When I lost my cousin and it was labeled that he committed suicide that was what really pushed me to becoming an activist. I become politically aware when I first realized that the local Philadelphia government was never held responsible for the MOVE bombing that killed 11 men, women, and children.

It is a truism that “the personal is political,” but for black and brown folks, especially for the working class and poor in a carceral society, these conversations are not just abstractions for us. So when Bill Clinton is lecturing the two of you on “black crime” and his support for the 1994 Crime Bill what was going through your mind?

Rufus: There was a lot going on in a physical manner. People were approaching Eric and putting their hands on her. Most of the crowd was Hillary supporters, so you can imagine the things being said to us. They were putting up signs and trying to obstruct our anti-Clinton signs. At some point, the Philadelphia police were literally pushing us around. I didn’t really take it all in, Clinton’s retort, until we started watching more of the video footage from the event, seeing him pointing his finger, getting red in the face, making these wild accusations toward us. I was focusing more on my own safety, and of course Erica’s safety, and what was going on around us in that room.

I have written extensively about Donald Trump and the violence at his rallies. In the media, we have had many conversations about the thuggish behavior of his supporters. What was the environment like at Hillary Clinton’s rally in Philadelphia? How were you treated? What were some of the exchanges you had with Hillary’s supporters at the rally?

Erica: The narrative about protesters and activists is that we are the violent ones, that we are the thugs. But no one wants to capture the moment when someone is snatching a sign out of your hands, or when somebody walks over to you and literally puts their hands on you. Bill Clinton was not the only person wagging their finger in the building that day. The actual confrontation started when a white lady came up to me and told me that I needed to be ashamed of myself for disrupting the event. You also have black liberals and gatekeepers who are taunting you and going along with the chastisement.

When we were protesting, there were actually black men standing in front of me as a black woman, as if my concerns about police brutality and violence did not impact them as well. For me, as a black woman, I am very vocal when I get into my politics and messaging. But they always send another black woman over to me to tell me why I am wrong. That is how it started. A black woman told me that my sign was causing conflict with the people in the building. I told her that I will not put down my sign until the other people holding their signs did the same thing.

Rufus: I had someone, a black person actually, call me a demon when the rally was over. Our intention was to go in, just the two of us, not a mob, to stand their quietly in the rally and not say a word. Unfortunately, lots of people provoked us to start speaking.

Erica: A black woman also called us the “predators” too.

Since your exchange last week, Bill Clinton has been pivoting and trying to explain away his treatment of both of you. What do you think his political calculus in that moment was? Was this a “Sister Souljah” moment where he could chastise a black woman in order to win more white supporters?

Erica: Yes, that is exactly what it was. It was him chastising us because we are the “uncivilzed people,” the black “barbarians” and if it wasn’t for what he did with the 1995 Crime Bill then we would be worse off than where we are today. In that moment he revealed himself and his true thoughts on black people. He likely had lots to do with his wife calling us “super predators” and that “we need to be brought to heel” like we were animals.

Rufus: Clinton’s comments also remind me of how some racist white people still say that if it wasn’t for white people, blacks would be wandering Africa like primitives.

Bill Clinton’s “Africa” and “Black Lives Matter” comment was very odd.

Rufus: He was wagging his finger at us and pretty much stating that it was because black people across the country asked for a harsher stance on crime that he gave to us a 1994 Crime Bill that caused the mass incarceration of many people in our communities—even non-violent offenders. He was in essence saying, “You asked for it,” “I helped you.” “I gave you what you wanted.” “Your communities were screwed up and I helped you out.” Again this was very evocative of how white racists say that if it wasn’t for “us” then black people would still be roaming around Africa like “savages.”

I recently spoke with social scientists Douglas McAdam and Cedric Johnson about the relationship between “Black Lives Matter”, the black freedom struggle, and the civil rights movement. How do you think of your activism in that broad context?

Erica: I would definitely say that we are part of a new wave of movement, one that is actually spearheaded by the civil rights movement. Of course, we stand on their backs and shoulders.  This is definitely now a time in the country where things must change. We as a people are pushing for the idea that we can no longer afford to settle for the lesser of two evils. It is because of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the whole idea of civil unrest and disobedience will help to get this message across. We have to get into the communities and empower people by helping them to understand what white privilege and white supremacy look like on a daily basis and on a covert level.

Rufus: I see it as sort of a relay race of sorts. We are being passed the baton and the newer generations are going to get passed the baton for black liberation and black lives and they are going to have to pick it up and run with it. This movement is different from the civil rights movement in some ways from those of an earlier era. But the principles I believe are still the same. One generation passes the baton to the next.

How do you think that generational tensions in the black community are playing out with “Black Lives Matter”, as well as the 2016 Democratic primary competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?

Rufus: There are elders within the black and brown community who are staunch supporters of the Democrats, they go into the voting booths for local and national elections and vote for whoever is on the Democratic ticket, regardless of how their policies have hurt black and brown people, they vote Democratic automatically. The belief is that the Democrats are better than the Republicans. I think that is the elders in the community. Younger people in our communities are seeing things differently. They are analyzing the 1994 Crime Bill signed by Bill Clinton. They are looking at Hillary’s endorsement of the crime bill as something harmful with her statements about “super predators”. The younger generation is starting to analyze these comments and actions and are not finding the Clinton brand as untouchable as their elders.

The elders also do not want to be as confrontational as younger folks too. Younger folks are more likely to go and raise our voices if necessary. Not that we are uneducated people who only know how to yell. But, we know various effective tools to communicate a message and get done what we need to get done.

These generational tensions often remind me of a very tired, clichéd, and misunderstood version of “black respectability politics”

Erica: Younger folks now are so divested from “respectability politics." They are not looking to the system in any way for jobs, careers, or educations. They know and see it in their everyday lives. In the schools, nurses, social workers, and counselors were replaced with police officers and metal detectors. The children know they are being prepared for prison. They know this based on how their teachers talk with them, do not care for them, criminalize them, tell them that they won’t be successful, and do not respect them. This is why young people do not respect their elders in many ways.

As Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked, “where do we go from here?” What are some specific policy goals and outcomes that “Black Lives Matter” and other progressive-liberal activists should be working toward?

Rufus: On the local level here in Philadelphia, an end to “Stop and Frisk.” It targets black and brown youth unjustly. It is often later discovered that these stops are unjustified in the first place and are a form of racial profiling that have been made into official policy.

Erica: Self-empowerment, black liberation, and black unity. I think we should be divesting from the political process across the board. I think that we need to get away from the two-party political system. We need to invest in more independent political parties. We need to stop voting straight Democrat because it has gotten us no where. Since Bernie Sanders has started talking about what it means to be a “Socialist” and we need to start talking about what that would really look like.

As a final question, what advice would you give Bernie Sanders about how to better connect with black voters?

Rufus: It is hard for white people to understand what to do to improve the conditions of black and brown communities in this country. Bernie Sanders is no different. He may mean well. But I do not think he understands how to improve the conditions in our communities. I would tell Sanders that he should hire more black and brown people as his advisers if he wants to get more black and brown support. He needs to hire folks who are on the ground and who have their ears to the street regarding what is going in these communities on a daily basis. This is not just police brutality; it is gentrification; it is a lack of funds for school systems and other matters too.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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