Days before Hillary Clinton thundered to an overwhelming victory over rival Bernie Sanders in South Carolina – largely on the strength of black voters who supported her by an even higher percentage than they supported Barack Obama with in 2008 – a young, proudly queer, black activist, Ashley Williams, was in Charlotte, plotting an action that would make a statement of its own.
She was planning to attend a private Clinton fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, and confront the candidate about her support of policies – specifically the 1994 crime bill – that contributed to the explosion of racially tilted mass incarceration in this country.
Williams and her friends decided to make a sign – but what to put on it? They toyed with phrases from a now infamous speech Clinton gave in 1996 – when the 23-year-old Williams was a toddler – in which Clinton said:
“We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators: no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
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They settled on a phrase and over a couple of hours they blocked out the letters on a pillowcase. Williams practiced in a bathroom mirror folding the banner into her bra and whipping it out. (She figured that she’d have to hide it so that it wouldn’t be confiscated before she revealed it at the fundraiser.) But it was too thick. So she cut away the back half that had no writing. Perfect.
The night of the event, she nervously made her way through security and took up position near where she assumed Clinton was to speak. As soon as Clinton descended the stairs of the mansion, took the microphone and began her remarks, Williams turned to the crowd and unfurled her banner. Then she turned to Clinton, who was confronted with her own worst words:
“We have to bring them to heel.”
On the video of the encounter, recorded by a friend of Williams who accompanied her to the event, an exchange follows:
Williams: “We want you to apologize for mass incarceration.”
Clinton: “OK, we’ll talk about…”
Williams: “I’m not a super predator, Hillary Clinton.”
Clinton, obviously caught off guard, struggles to find an appropriate response as Williams continues to pressure her and the crowd begins to grumble, “That’s inappropriate,” and the Secret Service closes in on Williams.
Then Clinton says something about answering for her statement and mass incarceration in general that left me flabbergasted:
“You know what, nobody’s ever asked me before. You’re the first person to ask me, and I’m happy to address it, but you are the first person to ask me, dear.”
Could this be true? How was this possible? How is it that of all the black audiences she has been before in the interceding two decades, and all the black relationships she has cultivated, no person ever asked her what this young graduate student was asking?
In that movement, I knew that the people of my generation had failed the people of Williams’. Her whole life has borne the bruises of what was done, largely by Democrats, when I was the age she is now.
She said she has grown up knowing families and whole communities devastated by vanishing black people, swept away into a criminal justice system that pathologized their very personage. That night, Williams forced a reckoning.
For it, Williams has been viciously and unfairly attacked as a political operative on a hit mission, all of which she denied in detail during a phone interview last Saturday.
Perhaps most stinging was Bill Maher, who used an expletive to call protesters like Williams “idiots,” and said: “People need to learn the difference between an imperfect friend and a deadly enemy. You want to tear Hillary Clinton down? Great. Then enjoy President Trump.”
But this is a false choice, one too often posed to young activists who insist on holding power accountable. It’s the same argument they hear from the police: Allow us to operate in your communities with impunity and abandon or the criminals will do so to even more devastating effect. Following this line of reasoning, silent absorption of pain and suffering is the only option. I wholly reject that.
After the encounter, Clinton said in a statement published by The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart: “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
The statement isn’t really an apology for championing the bill itself, and as such, I find it wanting. But at least Williams’ action provoked a response that many of us who came before her failed to demand.
For that, Ashley Williams, and activists like her, should be celebrated for shaming silence.
The New York Times