Former President Bill Clinton and current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appeared at the Clinton Center this morning to address the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who are holding a meeting in Little Rock today and tomorrow to discuss lessons of the racial furor that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after police there shot an unarmed black man in August.
Holder, who was once a judge in Washington, D.C., said that prior to joining the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general under Bill Clinton, he'd seen a stream of young men of color through his courtroom, seeing some of them multiple times. He said that Washington was "a city in crisis" in terms of crime in the 1990s. He said that the Community Oriented Policing System (COPS) that was put in place during the Clinton Administration, which hired tens of thousands of new cops and shifted the focus to building bridges between police and communities, helped change things. He noted that under Obama, both crime rates and incarceration rates had declined — the first time both had declined simultaneously in over 40 years. He applauded robust community policing efforts to try and build connections between communities and police.
Turning to Ferguson, Holder said the incident had shined a national spotlight on the rifts that developed between police and citizens.
"When I traveled to Ferguson a few days after that incident," Holder said, "my pledge to the people of that community was that our nation's Department of Justice would remain focused on challenges that they face and the deep-seated issues that the shooting had brought to the surface long after the national headlines had faded. This week, as we gather to confront those issues and consider ways to rebuild trust where it has eroded ... we're taking robust actions to make good on the pledge I made." The events in Ferguson, Holder said, showed the country that we cannot and must not allow tensions in communities to go unresolved.
After Holder, Bill Clinton came to the lectern. After remarking about how good it is to no longer be president ("The great thing about not being president anymore is that you can just say whatever you want," he said, "unless your wife might run for something, and then you can say anything you want as long as you don't make headlines."), his new granddaughter ("She's just like any normal child," Clinton said. "She was eight days old before we began to discuss quadratic equations."), and his trip around the state in recent days, Clinton spoke at length about the need to work for more inclusive communities, saying that everywhere in the world that "identity politics" are being practiced, problems abound. "Whether we like it or not," he said. "We are increasingly bound together."
Clinton said everyone in the world is struggling with fundamental questions about who we are and how we can all live together. In America, Clinton said, people seem to be more willing to live with anybody these days except those with whom they politically disagree.
"There's a lot of evidence that Americans are getting over all their bigotries but one," he said. "We're less — probably a lot less — racist, sexist and homophobic than we used to be, but we still don't want to be around anybody we don't agree with."
Clinton, as is his impressive gift, went on to give a solid, well-reasoned, mostly off-the-cuff speech that touched on everything from the current political gulf between left and right, to the folly of mass incarceration ("We basically took a shotgun to a problem that needed a .22"), to Ferguson, to the troubling pictures resulting from the Pentagon's program to give war surplus armored vehicles to police departments. It was enough to make one want to demand a repeal to term limits so the guy can run again.