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Bill Clinton Clashes With Black Lives Matter Protesters


One of the flashpoints in the Democratic Party is the legacy of the 1994 crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton. Many blame it for mass incarceration of African-Americans over the last several decades. Today in Philadelphia, protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted the former president as he campaigned for his wife. He sparred with them for more than 10 minutes. This comes as the Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has gotten much nastier. NPR's Tamara Keith is following it all, and she's here in the studio with us again. Hey, Tam.


SHAPIRO: So what happened today?

KEITH: This is just the latest flare-up between Democrats on the campaign trail and activists from the Black Lives Matter movement. And often these things don't turn out very well for the politicians involved.

The protesters came to raise a number of issues related to the crime bill. And one of them was holding up a sign quoting Hillary Clinton who in 1996 used the term superpredator talking about young gang members. But it was also a racially-loaded term at the time, and Hillary Clinton has apologized for using it. President Clinton, though, defended the bill for bringing down black-on-black crime and defended his wife's use of the word superpredator.


BILL CLINTON: I don't know how you characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't. She didn't.


SHAPIRO: Well, Tam, this only happened this afternoon, but how's it playing out so far?

KEITH: Black Lives Matter activists on Twitter are criticizing the way Bill Clinton addressed the protesters. And the way he talked about the crime bill doesn't fully jive with the Clinton campaign's message on these matters.

On the crime bill, for instance, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders want to roll back some of the tough sentencing provisions and reduce mass incarceration. And Clinton herself is not defending the crime bill out on the campaign trail. She's talking about how she wants to change it, and her campaign also likes to remind people that Sanders voted for that bill at the time.

Bill Clinton spent a lot of time today defending his own legacy, saying that his presidency was good for African-Americans. And we have seen a generational divide in this campaign among African-Americans - with old African-Americans who lived through the Clinton years remembering them fondly, and they tend to support Hillary Clinton. While younger black voters have been highly critical of both the crime bill and the welfare reform signed by Bill Clinton at the time of his presidency.

SHAPIRO: Apart from this confrontation, in the last 24 hours, the Democratic race has become a lot more negative, intense, a lot of personal attacks. Tell us what's going on.

KEITH: Yeah, at the moment the biggest fight is about who is qualified to be president. Hillary Clinton was asked in an MSNBC interview this week if she thought Sanders was qualified. And she didn't say yes, and she didn't say no. But she did criticize his answers during an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. And so then last night, Sanders struck back at that perceived slight.


BERNIE SANDERS: And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote, unquote, "not qualified to be president." Well, let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton, I don't believe that she is qualified if she is...


KEITH: And then he goes on to criticize her Iraq war vote, her affiliated super PAC, her support for international trade deals. Now, we should say that the thing that he's quoting her as saying, she didn't actually ever say.

So today, Clinton responded, and she said she didn't know why Sanders would say such a thing, but that he is still better than any of the Republicans in the race.

SHAPIRO: Tam, do you think this is the new nature of the race, that it's going to stay this negative from here on out?

KEITH: That remains to be seen. I don't think we're going to see the candidates devolve to tweeting out bad-looking pictures of their spouses or anything like is happening on the Republican side. But the bigger question is - does this spat hurt the ultimate nominee? Does it hurt party unity? And does it give the Republican nominee whoever that is ammunition to use against either Clinton or Sanders?

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tamara Keith covering the Democratic race for president. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.