By Luciana Lopez & Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK – Former President Bill Clinton faced down protesters angry at the impact his crime reforms of 20 years ago have had on black Americans and defended the record of Hillary Clinton, his wife, who is relying on the support of black voters in her quest for the presidency.
The former president spent more than 10 minutes confronting the protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia for his wife on Thursday over criticisms that a 1994 crime bill he approved while president led to a surge in the imprisonment of black people.
The Democratic race for the Nov. 8 election has become increasingly heated as Hillary Clinton, stung by a string of losses in state contests, has traded barbs with her rival for the party’s nomination, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, over who is better prepared for the White House.
In Philadelphia, several protesters heckled the former president mid-speech and held up signs, including one that read “CLINTON Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities.”
Video footage of Hillary Clinton defending the reforms in 1994 has been widely circulated during the campaign by activists in the Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the footage she calls young people in gangs “super-predators” who need to “be brought to heel.” Hillary Clinton, 68, who also has faced protesters upset by her remarks, in February said she regretted her language.
Bill Clinton, 69, who was president from 1993-2001, on Thursday defended her 1994 remarks, which protesters say were racially insensitive, and suggested the protesters’ anger was misplaced.
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” he said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She (Hillary Clinton) didn’t.”
“You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” he told a protester. “Tell the truth.”
Hillary Clinton promised to end “mass incarceration” in her first major speech of her campaign last year. She has won the support of the majority of black voters in every state nominating contest so far, often by a landslide.
Spokesmen for the campaign and Bill Clinton did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment.
The United States has more people in prison than any other country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.05 million prisoners were held in federal or state facilities in 1994. By 2014, it was 1.56 million. That year, 6 percent of all black men in their 30s were in prison, a rate six times higher than that of white men of the same age.
Bill Clinton said last year that he regrets signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law because it contributed to the country’s high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes. On Thursday, he did not explicitly recant those regrets, but appeared to be angry at any suggestion the bill was wholly bad.
The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was know for its federal “three strikes” provision that sent violent offenders to prison for life. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Clinton.
Although Bill Clinton is popular among Democrats who view him as a gifted speech maker and crowd pleaser, he has in the past veered from the carefully calibrated message put out by her campaign, causing problems for her spokespeople.
During Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential bid, civil rights leaders and high-ranking Democrats in Congress criticized the former president for statements he made during a heated campaign against then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Bill Clinton said that Obama’s campaign had “played the race card.” Obama became the first U.S. black president in November that year.
Bill Clinton’s remarks on Thursday drew criticism online. Some saw him as dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a national outgrowth of anger over a string of encounters in which police officers killed unarmed black people.
Johnetta Elzie, a prominent civil-rights activist, wrote online that Clinton “can’t handle being confronted by his own record.”
“This is like watching a robot malfunction,” she wrote.
Earlier in Philadelphia, Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, assailed Clinton as unqualified to be president as the two campaigns became increasingly testy less than two weeks before New York’s nominating contest.
“Are you qualified to be president of the United States when you’re raising millions of dollars from Wall Street, an entity whose greed, recklessness and illegal behavior helped destroy our economy?” Sanders said at a news conference.
Clinton this week sharply questioned Sanders’ credentials and ability to carry out a campaign pledge to break up the big banks.
Spokesmen for Clinton noted that she never said the word “unqualified” when she questioned his preparedness for the presidency, but they declined to say whether she believes in that characterization.
Clinton aimed for a more magnanimous tone than her aides when speaking to reporters during a subway ride in New York City.
“I don’t know why he’s saying that,” she said of Sanders’ calling her unqualified. “But I will take Bernie Sanders over Ted Cruz or Donald Trump any time,” she said of the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.