Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has been making the rounds to defend his policies while in office to support his wife’s run for President. The close working relationship that he and Hillary Clinton have infers a symbiosis that other ‘First Couples’ wouldn’t be jointly held accountable for. And in contrast to the oft offered argument that Mrs. Clinton isn’t responsible for her husband’s policies, she has taken responsibility (links below) for her role in developing, promoting and implementing the omnibus crime bill of 1994 that led to the massive buildout of the carceral state (mass incarceration) and for her use of the term ‘super-predator’ as racist slander against Black children.
When Bill Clinton was recently confronted by Black Lives Matter protestors he reiterated the talking points that he (and Hillary) used in 1994, that drug ‘gang’ violence was real, that his (and Hillary’s) interest was humanitarian, that many Blacks supported the crime bill and that the growth in incarceration rates for people of color was an unintended consequence. Left unsaid was that the crime bill was but one part of the Clinton’s opportunistic ‘dog-whistle’ strategy, that the policies tied to more than three centuries of racial repression in the U.S. and that regardless of whether the Clintons fully thought through the implications, they were willing to gamble with the lives of millions of Black and Brown youth for political gain.
Contemporary political rhetoric ‘works,’ to the extent that it does, by erecting walls between ideas, acts and policies that might otherwise be plausibly related. Basic physical security, as in freedom from violence for one’s person, family, neighbors and community, is a human right in a most basic sense. It is also the human right that has been most tightly circumscribed throughout American history. The American ‘story,’ as in the history written by the dominant culture, has been of White America ‘under attack’ from hostile indigenous peoples and inner-city ‘criminals’ whereas the overwhelming preponderance of actual violence has been committed against the indigenous population, kidnapped Africans held in slavery and their descendants.
This same disjoint ‘history’ is true of American military adventures overseas, always undertaken in official explanations to benefit those being bombed, sanctioned, starved, imprisoned and forced to migrate. Bill Clinton spent most of his two terms in office bombing and sanctioning Iraq to ‘contain’ former CIA ‘asset’ Saddam Hussein as Mr. Hussein continued to eat well and sleep comfortably at night. It was the Iraqis who were least able to defend themselves who were bombed, starved, and from whom life-saving medicines and medical care were withheld. Somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 innocent Iraqis— mostly women and children, were killed by Mr. Clinton’s bombs and sanctions.
This context is necessary because when Bill Clinton chose to defend his and Hillary Clinton’s omnibus crime bill and its social consequences he framed it, once again, as a domestic ‘humanitarian intervention.’ The localized ‘truth’ that Mr. Clinton used to do so— that freedom from violence is a basic right that ‘even’ the communities subsequently targeted with repressive policing, racially biased drug laws and mass incarceration deserved, removes the broader context of American racial history. Alternatively, without an antique-progressive racial or genetic theory of ‘crime,’ why would liberal Democrats choose police repression and creation of a carceral state before first resolving the political and economic exclusion that correlate 100% with the communities suffering from ‘internal’ violence?
In history, the first ‘professional’ police department in the U.S. was created in Charleston, S.C. from mercenary ‘slave patrols.’ Following the Civil War ‘Black laws’ (codes) were used to maintain civil control over nominally freed slaves for purposes of creating neo-chattel conditions of expropriated labor and social control. Jim Crow used racially targeted laws, policing and carceral policies as tools of civil enforcement of racial repression. Ronald Reagan began his 1979 campaign for President in Philadelphia, MS, where in 1964 three civil rights activists were brutally murdered by local police working with the Ku Klux Klan. It was in this historical context that in 1994 Hillary Clinton used the term ‘super-predator’ as racist code for poor black youth to sell the omnibus crime bill.
In fact, the Clinton’s spent most of Bill Clinton’s two terms using coded racist themes—‘dog-whistle’ politics, to benefit politically through raising racial animosity and repression. Mr. Clinton’s welfare ‘reform,’ framed as ‘ending welfare as we know it,’ followed directly from Ronald Reagan’s racist caricature of the ‘welfare queen’ living high on the public dime. Mrs. Clinton’s ‘super-predators’ likewise had implied race and class that tied to racist themes of Black ‘supermen’ all ‘hopped up’ and impervious to pain, bullets and ‘normal’ human emotions. That the overwhelming preponderance of American racial violence has been perpetrated against Blacks and the indigenous population seems a murderous flaw in the dominant culture id— complete reversal of factual history into misdirected fear.
Put forward as support for the Clinton’s policies is that many Blacks buy-into dominant culture stereotypes much the same as White people do. In areas where drug violence persists, Blacks are often featured on the local news thanking the police for arresting the kids who have been shooting up neighborhoods and killing one another. To state the obvious: these circumstances are tragic and require social resolution. However, the argument that repressive policing, racist drug laws and mass incarceration are socially constructive solutions in no way follows from the tragedy of the circumstances. The Clinton’s ‘market-based’ solutions to poverty ultimately destroyed the near totality of Black wealth and many inner city neighborhoods in the housing bust.
Most adult Americans live no more than a ten minute walk or drive from a place where, for less than twenty dollars, they can buy a lethal dose of a debilitating and violence inducing drug. Eighty-eight thousand people drink themselves to death every year in the U.S. Two hundred and ten thousand people die each year from preventable medical errors. The worst case scenario under the racist hysterics of ‘super-predator’ theories was that 6,000 people per year would die. In other words, Americans are 35X more likely to die from an accident at the doctor’s office than they were in 1994 to die from ‘gang’ violence. The Clintons knew exactly what they were doing when they used coded racist appeals to ‘peel away’ White suburban voters from national Republicans. The strategy worked politically for them at the time, never mind the body-count of destroyed lives they left behind.
Drug (alcohol) Prohibition in the 1920s produced a violent culture of (White) alcohol distributors that used gun violence against one another, the police and occasionally innocent bystanders. No racialized pseudo-science was created in response around a White predisposition toward wanton murder. The social ‘choice’ of which drugs are legal or illegal has always been a proxy for racial and cultural politics. As Dan Baum wrote recently in Harper’s, Richard Nixon’s rationale for launching the ‘war on drugs’ was to provide the Federal government with plausible cover to spy on, disrupt, arrest and otherwise impede Black communities and the anti-war Left for political gain. From its inception the war on drugs has been a racialized tactic of political repression waged by the authoritarian Right, often with the help of progressive ‘science.’
Many commentators have pointed the sudden compassion that White Americans found for the drug-addicted as heroin has once again become a major cause of death among Whites. Portugal decriminalized all drugs (heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) fifteen years ago, at about the same time that the Clintons were leaving office. Since then drug usage in that country has declined substantially (link above). Canadian physician Gabor Mate has been (plausibly) arguing for several decades now that drug addiction is a symptom, not a cause, of social dysfunction. Were the Clinton’s intention other than political gain through racial division and racist repression their lack of political imagination might have only been depressing, rather than socially catastrophic.
The broader frame of the American carceral response to social problems is inextricably tied to three centuries of racial repression. Bill Clinton slaughtered 300,000+ innocent (Brown) women and children in Iraq and social circumscription places those deaths in the category of ‘acceptable’ behavior. But when Black children tossed onto the social garbage heap express a tiny fraction of the social pathos hurled at them they are suddenly too dangerous to be left un-imprisoned. To reiterate, in the context of broader threats to life and livelihood, the threats to the children the Clinton’s imprisoned far outweighed any plausible threats from them. Had Bill and Hillary Clinton given the slightest crap about these children they would have been increasing funding to their communities, not cutting it as they were.
In an interview that followed Bill Clinton’s derision of Black Lives Matter protestors in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she understands that their use of dog-whistle politics in the 1990s is a political problem for her in 2016. And therein lies part of the problem. The lives that the Clinton’s destroyed in Iraq, Kosovo and in the American carceral system are just so much detritus, a political problem to be overcome, rather than human catastrophes to weep over and try to make right. Hillary Clinton wants to ‘tweak’ the carceral state (link above) without revisiting the base premise that if punishing socially destructive acts is the legitimate function of incarceration she, her husband and some fair portion of their moneyed supporters belong in prison for ‘the remainder of their natural lives.’
This isn’t a gratuitous slam— what the Clinton’s use of racialized politics demonstrates is that it is the entire American system of governance that needs to be reworked. The distinctions between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’ used to legitimate the carceral state have nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the maintenance of social privilege and power for the Clinton’s and the cohort of plutocrats and power brokers that they represent. The ‘thirteen year old boy’ that Bill Clinton uses to convey moral outrage at Black-on-Black violence deserves more than to be used as a prop in his racist ploy to win votes. Mr. Clinton need not even be insincere in his outrage— some of the most effective demagogues are those that sincerely believe their destructive rhetoric.
The starting point to address social violence is creation of a state of social justice for all people. This includes a right to work for decent wages, adequate housing, quality public education, public health care from cradle to grave, adequate pensions and the right of political participation. Hillary Clinton and her liberal apparatchiks have argued convincingly that Hillary Clinton has no concept of how to affect such an outcome. In fact, in their view no such outcome is possible. In defending his own programs, what Bill Clinton confirms is that Hillary Clinton was an active participant in their development and implementation. The public record substantiates Mrs. Clinton’s active role in the Clinton’s dog whistle politics. And in fact, her ‘experience in public life’ is the central selling point that Mrs. Clinton claims for herself.
As Bernie Sanders readies his capitulation and asks that followers of his ‘revolution’ get in line behind Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment the question needs to be asked: if the Clintons are the best that the Democrats have to offer, why would anyone in their right mind vote for Democrats? How what the Clintons did in the 1990s comes across in 2016 is absolutely the point— their policies and politics were cynical bullshit then and that is exactly how they appear now. The only guarantee in the present is that whichever establishment candidate becomes President, it is the overwhelming preponderance of the world’s citizens who will suffer the consequences. Revolution is the only solution.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics will be published by CounterPunch later this month.