Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man arrested by police in a West Baltimore neighborhood, died earlier this month from spinal injuries sustained while in custody. The exact cause of his injury has yet to be determined, and the Department of Justice is investigating. After his April 27 funeral, the “city’s black anguish took flame as cars were burned and young people hurled rocks at cops,” as Michael Eric Dyson described in a New York Times op-ed. In the ensuing violence, police officers were injured, the U.S. National Guard called in, and a curfew set. This reaction joins the violent and painful protests that took place in Ferguson last year, in Oakland after the shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, and across the United States after the April 29, 1992 beating of Rodney King. These riots are symptomatic of the enduring structural racism in U.S. law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama noted that the tensions between Baltimore’s black residents and local police were “not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” Wednesday was the 23rd anniversary of the Rodney King riots.
Unsurprisingly, the Baltimore riots have produced debate in the media over the ethics of violent riots, with peaceful protests held up as the ideal. David Simon, creator of The Wire, a fictional drama following the Baltimore Police Department, made an appeal for peace on his blog. “The anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease,” he wrote. By contrast, in a piece for Salon, Benji Hart argued that “when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence, and logical decisions about what kind of actions yield the desired political results.” Given how hotly debated as the issues of racism and police violence are in America, there will be no reconciliation of these two incredibly divergent versions of the truth any time soon.
Hillary Clinton cut through that debate Wednesday to make an unusually stirring speech. This is not to say that her motives were not opportunistic in nature, but that political opportunism does not negate the fact that the likely Democratic nominee actually had concrete policy suggestions for how to handle the glaringly obvious problem of police brutality in America. Before an audience at Columbia University, noting that now is “a time for wisdom,” Clinton made her first major policy address of the 2016 presidential campaign, discussing racism and shining a light on what she believes should be done about prison reform.
Here’s a look at her key points:
One of the main themes of Clinton’s speech was the exceedingly high rate of incarceration among black men in America. “There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes,” she said. “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.” Using 2010 census data, a report from the New York Times found that for every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men. This leaves a huge gap in the United States. Those men are not available to care or their children or bring home a paycheck. Clinton noted that one in 28 children has a parent in prison. And so the consequences of this pandemic is profound. “Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty,” she added.
There are essentially 1.5 million men “missing” because they are either behind bars or early death. In no city in America is the gap widest than in Ferguson, Mo. “African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring,” commented the Times. “It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.”
This gap barely exists among white Americans.
Only 5% of the world’s population lives in the United States, but America is home to a full 25% of the incarcerated population. Clinton believes the “era of mass incarceration” should end. As evidence, she pointed to the fact that a significant percentage of the more than 2 million Americans now in prison are low-level offenders, held for violating parole or minor drug crimes.
This mass incarceration does not come cheap to the American taxpayer either; it costs approximately $80 billion per year to keep so many people in prison, with rates ranging from $30,000 to $60,000 annually for each inmate, depending on the state.
The other glaring problem that Clinton focused on is, of course, the racism tightly linked with law enforcement. She asked for public awareness. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said. “There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down as far as it has in many of our communities.”
Clinton voiced her support for the use of body cameras to guard against future police brutality, a solution President Barack Obama called for in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. In December, he requested that Congress authorize $75 million in funds to equip local police departments with body cameras as part of his effort to “build trust between communities and local police.” Bodycams will “improve transparency and accountability” and “will help protect good people on both sides of the lens,” Clinton said.
Ending police militarization is yet another way violence can be decreased, as Clinton argued. According to her, one of the most shocking aspect of the police crackdown in Ferguson was the military-grade weapons cops used. “Weapons of war” have “no place on our streets.”
Clinton thinks the Unite States needs to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences, develop probation and drug diversion programs, and put mental health at the top of the national agenda. “There’s a lot of good work to build on,” she acknowledged. There are police departments already deploying creative and effective strategies, demonstrating how we can protect the public without resorting to unnecessary force. We need to learn from those examples, build on what works.”
Of course, this speech does need political context. In post-Obama America, the Democrat Party’s central policy agenda rests on solving inequality, the broken criminal justice and mental health systems, and poverty. And Clinton is taking up this mantle, a solid approach for appealing to her party’s base. After all, Clinton is often seen as too cold or too detached from the common voter. Her message, “that every life matters,” is a commitment to taking on the unfinished business of the Obama administration. Her viewpoint is by no means rare, but making that connection is key for her campaign; it shows she is able to connect with a message, unlike in her 2008 run.
In the opening paragraphs of her speech, Clinton said, “Not only as a mother and a grandmother but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families.” She, too, made a plea for peaceful protest. “We should begin by heeding the pleas of Freddie Gray’s family for peace and unity, echoing the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and others in the past years.”
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