Indeed, most Democrats who have been in national office long enough played a part in the bill’s passage. Vice President Joe Biden wrote the ’94 Crime Bill and endorsed its “tough-on-crime” policies when he was a senator from Delaware. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voted for it. Even Senator Bernie Sanders, despite what he has since characterized as a tough compromise to gain provisions on violence against women and gun control, cast an “aye” vote for the bill’s provisions to eliminate college-education grants for inmates, install mandatory-minimum sentencing and repeat-offender sentencing, and greatly expand the capacity of federal and state law enforcement and prison.
Democrats are also trying to escape that era’s state and local crime laws, which most impacted the lives of Americans. Even for these legislative measures, Democratic leaders acted in concert with their federal counterparts to create a system that increasingly treated imprisonment and aggressive policing as panaceas. Many of those officials were also on center stage during the convention. Kaine himself was a vocal advocate for Project Exile when he was mayor of Richmond. That program, which was initiated the year before Kaine took office in 1998, automatically sent all gun offenders in the city into federal court, where five-year mandatory-minimum sentences—set by the Violent Crime Bill—applied. Predictably, it openly targeted black neighborhoods and, despite controversy around its methods, has become a template for similar policies in other cities and states.
Other local leaders from cities that are currently loci of Black Lives Matter protests were front and center at the Democratic National Convention. Wednesday night’s speaker Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is not a Democrat, but his endorsement of broken-windows policing and stop-and-frisk policies in a liberal city has been a model for several other municipalities. Democratic National Committee secretary and emergency-gavel-person Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is also the mayor of Baltimore, a city shaken by the news that all charges against police officers would be dropped in the Freddie Gray case just before the third day of the convention started in earnest.
That all isn’t to say the Democrats’ efforts to reverse two decades of carceral policy is necessarily disingenuous. Many Democrats—including Wednesday’s speaker Jesse Jackson, Sr.—spoke out vehemently against the crime bill and its ilk. Some Democratic officials have been ahead of the curve in anticipating the long-reaching effects of those policies and fighting them. Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, walked me through his city’s efforts to push community policing, data collection, and body-camera adoption back in 2014, even though citizens’ trust of law enforcement has been eroded to nothing. “We decided in order to build a first-class police department we had to start moving forward aggressively in everything,” Benjamin told me at an event Wednesday. “But we’re not an outlier here.”
Even with genuine, well-intentioned policy and forward-thinking leaders, the dissonance within a party that championed mass incarceration and policing expansion, and that now champions reform, creates awkward moments during speeches. The party and its leadership—even the people of color within it that also pushed for crime bills—can’t be correct on race both today and 20 years ago. The longer the Big Tent is examined, the more it threatens to fold.