Kweisi Mfume, a former representative whose congressional district included Baltimore and who was the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the 103rd Congress, is trying to disown his and the CBC's role in pushing through the 1994 crime bill. The 1994 bill was the largest crime bill in U.S. history—it added 100,000 new police officers around the country and committed nearly $10 billion to build new prisons. The bill also included an assault weapons ban, to entice Democrats to vote, and a "midnight basketball" provision that turned off some Republicans who might otherwise be all over a law and order bill like that. The bill passed 235-195, with most Democrats voting in favor and most Republicans voting against. President Clinton happily signed the bill into law.
Now, some supporters of that bill, instead of acknowledging that they're evolving on the issue of being blindly pro-police, are trying to rewrite the history of how that bill passed a Democrat-controlled Congress and was signed into law by a Democratic president. MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked Mfume about the 1994 bill:
HAYES: Did you vote the wrong way on the Crime Bill in `94?
MFUME: Here`s the thing about the Crime Bill in 1994, there was no vote. It was a voice vote. So you didn`t even have to be there. It was all in favor, aye, all opposed no, and that`s how it passed.
Well, actually, uh, there was also a roll call vote to agree to the conference report. That vote should've been in the research packet Hayes' producers prepared for him. Here it is: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/1994/roll416.xml.
Mfume, and the entire leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus of the 103rd Congress, voted for it.
Mfume insisted widespread support for the bill was only "assumed." Continuing from the interview:
HAYES: And that`s how uncontroversial the idea was. More cops, three strikes—
MFUME: 41 new categories for the death penalty. Increase in the amount of money for prisons, decrease in the amount of money for prevention.
HAYES: And that was unanimous. That was just a unanimously held opinion across both parties.
MFUME: Well, you know, when you have a vote and say all in favor, aye, and all opposed, no, and there is no roll call, you sort of sweep it under the rug and assume that everybody`s going to support it.
HAYES: The law and order politics that have given us mass incarceration, many people will point to Nixon, particularly the Watts riots, the riots after King that happened near Baltimore in 1968, in Detroit and other places, as the starting point of that, right?
1994 was a big milestone on the path that might have started in 1968. And the CBC leadership wasn't a passive supporter of the crime bill. The Baltimore Sun quotes Mfume as saying the CBC wasn't doing Clinton a favor by voting for it, but had "put our stamp on this bill," because in addition to a surge in police officers and prisons, which would disproportionately affect poor, young black people, there was an assault weapons ban and a limit on automatic life sentences for repeat offenders.
In 2007, when a white representative tried to join the CBC, Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-Mo.) insisted the caucus was primarily "concerned with the needs and concerns of the black population." Clay later went on to vote against an amendment that would limit the amount of military gear sent to local police officers just a couple of months before militarized police were deployed around Ferguson, which is part of the district Clay represents. Just 7 out of 41 CBC members voted in favor of limiting police militarization. Back in 1994, only 12 out of 38 CBC members voted against the crime bill, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), both of whom also voted to limit police militarization.