In 1992, with crime at a historic high, Democrats were horrified of looking “soft on crime.” No politician knew this better than Bill Clinton, who as a presidential candidate ran on a “tough-on-crime” platform.
One particular moment sticks out: That year, at a press conference in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Clinton stood in front of predominantly black inmates — in a photo-op that would run in newspapers across the country to show he was ready to keep America safe.
Once in the Oval Office, he would sign a crime bill that boosted prison funding, the number of police officers, and harsher prison sentences — again, to look “tough on crime.”
Bill Clinton hosts campaign event on Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the KKK, with Black inmates in background. pic.twitter.com/kyQkDt5zhM
— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) April 1, 2016
Fast forward to 2016. Now, Democrats, under the banner of another Clinton, no longer seem fazed by concerns about looking “soft on crime.” Perhaps no moment showed the shift more than when Mothers of the Movement spoke at the Democratic National Convention — a group made up largely of moms of police shooting victims, dedicated in part to bringing attention to police brutality and the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“She knows that when a young, black life is cut short, it’s not just a loss,” Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, said. “It’s a personal loss. It’s a national loss. It’s a loss that diminishes all of us.”
These disparities and issues were just as real 24 years ago, but Democrats were far too scared to acknowledge them — out of concern that they would look too critical of the police or the criminal justice system more broadly. Yet on Tuesday, the party gave a big platform to the mothers of police shooting victims — not just to let them voice their message, but to embrace it as a party. The mothers even had to quiet chants of “black lives matter!” to speak.
This is a remarkable shift — one that shows the Black Lives Matter movement’s success so far.
Democrats are finally taking seriously issues that minorities have been raising for generations
Police brutality, abuses in the criminal justice system, and the racial disparities tied to all of those issues are nothing new. Black and brown communities have been crying out about such issues for generations, complaining about how police harass them, mistreat them, and disproportionately ticket or arrest them for crimes white Americans can get away with.
This is what the protests — and, in a few instances, riots — in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore were about. People were not upset solely as a result of one police shooting or killing. They were upset — even furious — at the neglect and abuse they felt at the hands of the justice system for so long, even as they complained time and time again.
The Black Lives Matter movement, though, has forced Democrats to take this issue far more seriously. With the advent of the internet, social media, and rapid dissemination of video, the movement forced white Americans — including Democrats — to confront the reality that all those complaints voiced for generations by minorities were legit.
A 2015 survey from Gallup, for example, found that Americans are more likely to say black people are unfairly treated in all aspects of society, including police encounters, compared to previous years. And a survey from the Pew Research Center found a 20-year high in Americans saying racism is a “big problem.”
Democrats have embraced this far more than their Republican counterparts. When divided by party, Pew found 61 percent of Democrats, including 61 percent of self-identified conservative and moderate Democrats, said racism is a big problem. By contrast, 41 percent of Republicans said it’s a big problem — a 20-point gap. (One caveat: Many white Americans, which make up the great majority of the Republican Party, say racism against white people is worse than bias against black people, so they may be speaking to a different kind of racism.)
Democrats have caught wind of these trends. Hillary Clinton is no exception.
Democrats have embraced Black Lives Matter in 2016
Throughout the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has slowly but surely brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the wing of her campaign. In speeches, she doesn’t at all hesitate to clearly say “black lives matter.” Her first big policy speech on the campaign trail focused on criminal justice reform, including equipping police with body cameras to help hold officers accountable. In Harlem in February, she called on white people to come together with Black Lives Matter to dismantle racism.
“I’m also asking all Americans to join in that effort,” Clinton said. “As Cornell Brooks, the new head of the NAACP, said in our meeting this morning, none of this is a ‘they’ problem; it’s a ‘we’ problem. And all of us have to admit that.”
As Dara Lind wrote for Vox, some of this is out of political necessity: Democrats remain fractured on economic issues, but identity politics — acknowledging the disadvantages that can come from a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or a disability — are something the party by and large agrees on. Black Lives Matter falls under the banner of identity politics.
Politically, it also provides a strong contrast to Donald Trump, who’s repeatedly made racist remarks for decades and on the campaign trail. Trump in particular has taken up the mantle of the “law and order” candidate, promising to be “tough on crime,” stand up for police officers and, not-so-subtly, reject the criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But it’s also a result of the realization that the policies of the past few decades aren’t working. America now leads the world in incarceration, yet the research shows that mass incarceration does little to keep Americans safer. Police shootings and brutality have also worsened distrust in law enforcement, which experts widely agree can contribute to more crime. And cops, too, are facing some of the consequences — as more distrust in the police can potentially lead to more anti-police violence.
The Mothers of the Movement speech was the culmination of these political and policy shifts. It’s a message the party would have feared decades ago, but Democrats are now ready to take it to a primetime audience.
“This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about saving our children,” Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, said. “That is why we are here tonight with Hillary Clinton, and that is why, in memory of our children, we are imploring you, all of you, to vote this Election Day.”