Last week, Ashley Williams of Charlotte introduced herself to Hillary Clinton – and the world.
“I am not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton,” she told the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner after interrupting Clinton’s speech at a $500 a ticket fundraiser in Charleston.
In a two-minute video now crisscrossing the country, Williams, a 23-year-old graduate student at UNC Charlotte, continued to interrupt Clinton’s speech, asking the former first lady and U.S. senator to apologize to the black community nationwide for comments she made in 1996 in support of her husband’s crime bill.
Clinton is expected to win Saturday’s presidential primary in South Carolina largely on her overwhelming popularity with the state’s African-American voters. Yet Williams said Clinton’s 20-year-old remarks about the emergence of urban 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” – pathologized and demonized her race.
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“Will you apologize to the black people of this country?” Williams asked Wednesday before being led away. “Will you apologize for mass incarceration?”
Clinton did not apologize – Williams, in fact, did not give her much time to respond at any length. But on Thursday Clinton issued a statement to the Washington Post, saying, “I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
“My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society, kids who never got the chance they deserved,” she said. “And unfortunately today, there are way too many of those kids, especially in African-American communities. We haven’t done right by them. We need to. We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline and replace it with a cradle-to-college pipeline.”
In a YouTube video posted after her back-and-forth with Clinton, Williams took credit for closing down the Clinton fund-raiser, and said all voters should “take a closer look at the candidates and their records.”
“Which Hillary Clinton are we getting?” she asks.
A closer look at Williams reveals a familiar face in social protests – on her campus and in Charlotte.
Last summer, Williams was an almost daily figure in the month-long trial of Randall “Wes” Kerrick, a white Charlotte police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man. When the trial ended in a deadlocked jury and mistrial, Williams, part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, was one of several dozen protesters who took to the street – literally – lying down on the pavement to block rush hour traffic.
“For the jury to be hung sends a message to me and my people that our lives do not matter, that our deaths do not matter and the conditions we are dealing with do not matter, socially, historically, politically,” she said.
Last fall, Williams and a fellow student started an online petition calling on UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois to reject his 19 percent pay raise and spend the money instead on faculty salaries or help for needy students. Dubois, who met with Williams, released a statement detailing existing plans to use more than $6 million in future appropriations to improve salaries campus wide.
Williams was not impressed.
“This is just a way to show people that he’s doing something, but it’s not good enough,” she told the student newspaper.
‘Get out of our way’
Williams did not respond to phone calls last week. Her grounding in activism appears to have begun early in her native Fayetteville.
In an interview with the Levine Museum of the New South earlier this month, she said her mother enrolled her in cultural enrichment programs at her church. Looking back, she said they were too narrow.
“I was only given respectable black people to look to as activists and mentors ... Now I have less repeatable ideas about what constitutes activism and who deserves praise for fighting injustice.”
She went on to say that it’s time for young people to elbow their way to the front of social discourse.
And I hope that moving forward as a country, we are pressing candidates to be accountable for the things they have said and done.
Charlotte activist Ashley Williams after her confrontation with Hillary Clinton
“Older generations need to listen to us and get out of our way. It’s our turn to fight for freedom. We have learned from the mistakes of our elders. We have taken so much away from the successes of our elders. Now, it’s time for us to lead the way,” she said.
Theresa McCormick-Dunlap, the wife of a Charlotte pastor, often sat with or near Williams during the Kerrick trial. The older woman says the pair formed a bond.
“Historically, the youth have always been exuberant, and their tactics have rarely pleased the older generation. But rarely is the revolution cordial,” she said. “Ashley is not unlike a lot of other people finding it difficult to believe that a candidate can shift gears so completely. So I think her concerns are quite reasonable.”
That said, McCormick-Dunlop said she wishes Clinton had been given more time to answer.
Charlotte activist John Barnett agrees. He says Williams sidestepped Martin Luther King’s rules of social action by confronting and disrespecting her target before trying to engage her in a meaningful conversation.
Washington Post columnist Janell Ross, though, described Williams’ ambush as “genius” because it bridged the gaps in Clinton’s evolving views of the criminal-justice system.
“The real beauty of Williams’ protest is that, in putting Clinton’s actual 1996 words out there, she not only forced that gap back into the headlines, but she will almost certainly force a candidate trying very hard right now to win every black vote that she can to make firm and clear commitments about what she will do differently if elected and why,” Ross wrote.
In her YouTube video, Williams continues to question Clinton’s commitment to racial justice, and she asks other Americans to challenge what all politicians say they stand for.
“Ultimately, I hope people are paying close attention,” she said. “And I hope that moving forward as a country, we are pressing candidates to be accountable for the things they have said and done.” Researcher Maria David contributed