Former United States President Bill Clinton faced down protesters on Thursday who were angry at the impact his crime reforms in 1994 have had on black Americans and defended the record of his wife Hillary Clinton, who is relying on the support of black voters in her campaign for presidency.
Bill Clinton spent more than 10 minutes confronting the protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia for his wife over criticisms that the crime bill he approved as the former president led to a surge in the imprisonment of black people.
Several protesters heckled Bill Clinton’s mid-speech and held up signs such as "CLINTON Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities."
The Democratic race for the Nov. 8 election has become increasingly heated as Hillary Clinton, stung by a string of losses in state contests, has traded barbs with her rival for the party's nomination, US Senator Bernie Sanders, over who is better prepared for the White House.
In a video footage, Hillary Clinton defends the reforms in 1994 and calls young people in gangs "super-predators" who need to "be brought to heel." The footage has been widely circulated during the campaign by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In February, Hillary Clinton, 68, who also faced protesters upset by her remarks, said that she regretted her language.
Bill Clinton, 69, who served as a president from 1993 to 2001, defended his wife’s 1994 remarks, which protesters say were racially insensitive and suggested that the protesters’ anger was misplaced.
"I don't know how you would characterise the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children," Bill Clinton said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event.
"Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn't," he added.
"You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter," he told a protester.
"Tell the truth."
Last year, Hillary Clinton vowed to end “mass incarceration” in the first major speech of her campaign. She has won the support of the majority of black voters in every state nominating contest so far, often by a landslide.
Spokesmen for the campaign and Bill Clinton did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.05 million prisoners were held in federal or state facilities of the United States in 1994. By 2014, it was 1.56 million. That year, 6 percent of all black men in their 30s were in prison, a rate six times higher than that of white men of the same age.
Last year, Bill Clinton expressed his regrets about signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law becase it contributed to the high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes.
Bill Clinton did not explicitly recant those regrets on Thursday but seemed to be angry at any suggestion that the bill was completely bad.
The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Bill Clinton.
Although Bill Clinton is popular among Democrats who view him as a gifted orator and crowd pleaser, he has in the past veered from the carefully calibrated message put out by his wife's campaign, causing problems for her representatives.
When Hillary Clinton failed in 2008 presidential bid, civil rights leaders and high-ranking Democrats in Congress criticised Bill Clinton for remarks he made during a heated campaign against then-US Senator Barack Obama. Bill Clinton said Obama's campaign had "played the race card." In that year, Obama became the first black US president in November.
Bill Clinton’s remarks sparked online criticism on Thursday. Some saw him as dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a national outgrowth of anger over a string of encounters in which police officers killed unarmed black people.