Young Black People Clash With Parents On Crime Bill and the Clintons

Rufus Farmer demonstrated against the 1994 crime bill during a speech by former President Bill Clinton this month in Philadelphia. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times
Rufus Farmer demonstrated against the 1994 crime bill during a speech by former President Bill Clinton this month in Philadelphia. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Rufus Farmer, 33, was tired of all the ways he saw black men being mistreated by the nation’s law enforcement system — from the police officer who once berated him for crossing the street to the mandatory prison sentences that sent so many of his peers away. 

So when former President Bill Clinton appeared on April 7 in Philadelphia at a rally for his wife, Hillary, Mr. Farmer protested, carrying a sign denouncing Mr. Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which set lengthy prison sentences and flooded the streets with police officers.

A fiery exchange broke out between the activists and the former president as Mr. Clinton forcefully defended the legislation. But it was not just Mr. Clinton who criticized the young protesters. Afterward, some older African-Americans did, too.

“I think it is crazy to protest the crime bill,” said Caryl Brock, 53, a social worker from the Bronx, who scolded the protesters on social media. “Should it be amended? Maybe. But a lot of people really wanted it. I really wanted it.”

Young and energized African-Americans this election cycle are aggressively challenging longstanding ideas and policies, especially those carried out during the Clinton administration in areas like crime and welfare. But the activism is also laying bare a striking generation gap between younger and older African-Americans, whose experience, views of the former president and notions of how they should push for change diverge dramatically.

The parents and grandparents of today’s young black protesters largely waged the battle for civil rights in courtrooms and churches. They carefully chose people who were viewed as upstanding citizens, like Rosa Parks, to be the face of their movement, and dressed in their Sunday best as they sought to gain broader acceptance. Mr. Clinton endeared himself to these generations by campaigning in black churches and appointing more blacks to the cabinet than any previous president had.

But many of today’s activists — whose political consciousness has been shaped by the high-profile killings of black people by the police — do not believe that acting respectfully will protect them from being harassed or shot. They aspire not to become a part of the political system, but to upend it.

“You do have older generations of church folk who believe that marching and singing is the best way to bring about change,” Mr. Farmer said. “We’ll march, too, but we’ll do what we need to do to communicate our message, if it happens to be yelling, or blocking an intersection. And we don’t care if people — particularly white people — believe it is respectable.”

The gulf between young black people and their elders surfaced repeatedly in more than two dozen interviews conducted in the days after Mr. Clinton’s clash with the protesters.

To young activists like Mr. Farmer, Mr. Clinton’s legacy on crime is paternalistic and damaging. But many older black voters who raised families during the crack epidemic — an era many young people do not remember — remain steadfastly loyal to the Clintons.

Ms. Brock said she had been a social worker in charge of the removal of children from dangerous homes in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack tore a path of destruction through those neighborhoods.

“I saw it all,” Ms. Brock said. “Moms would give birth and leave the hospital to get a hit. My car got broken into every week. People were scared to walk down to the bodega, afraid they’d be followed and robbed.”

She said she was relieved when the crime bill passed. In addition to providing more money for prisons and the police, the law banned assault weapons and offered funding for drug courts and rehabilitation.

“Because of the crime bill,” she said, “anybody that wanted rehabilitation, we could process them and get them a detox bed in a hospital.”

Ms. Brock’s comments underscore a sometimes overlooked reality in today’s re-examination of the crime bill: The legislation was broadly embraced by nonwhite voters, more enthusiastically even than by white voters. About 58 percent of nonwhites supported it in 1994, according to a Gallup poll, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Mr. Clinton has seemed rattled at times as he tries to defend the measure to younger African-Americans in an era in which concerns about mistreatment by the police and mass incarceration have eclipsed the fear of crime in many black communities.

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Source: The New York Times | FARAH STOCKMAN