Mass incarceration and racist policing were central themes in the PBS Democratic debate Thursday night. Part of the discussion over policing was inspired by the debate’s location in Wisconsin, which has the highest rate of incarceration for African American men.
Claudia Looze asked the candidates what they would do about the epidemic of mass incarceration that has particularly hit Wisconsin hard:
A question about incarceration rates of black men pic.twitter.com/iFdy7ChGRL
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) February 12, 2016
In her answer, Hillary Clinton mentioned the name of Dontre Hamilton, a Milwaukee resident who was shot by a police officer in the same city the candidates debated.
“We know of the tragic, terrible event that led to the death of Dontre Hamilton right here in Milwaukee, a young man, unarmed, who should still be with us,” Clinton said. “His family certainly believes that, and so do I. So we have work to do.”
Dontre Hamilton, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was sleeping in a park when police officers started harassing him. Milwaukee Officer Christopher Manney tried to frisk Hamilton, and Hamilton allegedly got upset and started fighting Manney. Manney says Hamilton got a hold of his baton, so he shot the mentally ill 31-year-old 15 times.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Morry Gash
Manney was fired but ducked criminal charges, because the Attorney General concluded that Manney had acted in legitimate self-defense. Manney then joined the vast majority of police officers who have gotten away with killing black people.
Manney has appealed his firing and claims that he’s suffering emotional trauma after shooting Hamilton.
Both Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have made criminal justice reform a central part of their message as the primary season turns to South Carolina, where black voters make up the majority of Democratic voters. Hamilton is the latest of many police victims whose memories are being invoked by the candidates. At another debate in the fall, Sanders brought up Sandra Bland, who died in jail after an unnecessarily abusive traffic stop, because he promised her mother he would say her name. Other victims’ families, including the mothers of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, have announced they will campaign for Clinton in South Carolina.
Though these families have endorsed Clinton, other leading voices in the Black Lives Matter movement have criticized Clinton’s role in worsening mass incarceration in the 1990s. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, argued in an essay for the Nation that Clinton does not deserve the black vote, noting that she lobbied for her husband’s proposals that ultimately expanded police and created harsher sentencing policies that added up to the mass incarceration crisis of today.