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POLITICS : ‘Put People First’ to End Urban Strife, Clinton Says

This is the second of four stump speeches by the major presidential candidates who appear on the June 2 California primary ballot. This is an abbreviated version of a speech Democrat Bill Clinton gave in Birmingham, Ala., on April 30--the second night of the Los Angeles riots--as transcribed by his campaign.

Normally when I give my campaign speech . . . I talk about what it will take to restore our economic vitality as a nation, what my experiences as governor of a Southern state have taught me as I’ve worked hard to preserve economic opportunity for our people.

But tonight I want to ask you to forgive me if I depart from my normal campaign speech, because there are some very troubling things going on in our country tonight, and all of us need to take a little time to think about them.

Yesterday, after the jury rendered the verdict in the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, rioting broke out in that city. Then fires broke out. Now there are three major fires burning in Los Angeles, and nine people are dead. . . .

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There has been a reaction of rioting in the streets in Atlanta, and tension is big in cities all across the United States. So I want to ask you to think for a moment about what I usually say is the second-biggest problem in America, which is, as a people, we are coming apart when we ought to be coming together.

Most of us who have seen the film don’t understand the verdict in the King trial. However, we have to say that, whatever the verdict, it does not justify the violence which ensued. . . .

It made me think about the 1960s again, when I was a young man and we had trouble here in Birmingham. The Watts section of Los Angeles burned in riots over poverty. In this month in 1968, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, on the eastern border of my home state, and Arkansas and Washington, D.C., erupted in violence. I can remember still to this day driving my car with a big red cross on it down into the inner city to the churches, where the people who were burned out of their homes were huddled in church basements waiting for food.

In the 1960s, people rioted over race, poverty and politics. Now the politics of our country have changed dramatically. Birmingham, Atlanta and Los Angeles all have black mayors, but the economics have worsened. Race and poverty problems remain, today accompanied by drugs and the disintegration of family on a scale we could not have imagined 20 years ago. . . .

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This is worse than it was in the ‘60s because every day . . . children grow up without parents to guide their way. Children walk to schools subject to random, drive-by shootings. Children themselves, who often have guns, shoot other children. . . .

The basic institutions that held our country together--the family, the school, the church, the neighborhood--all have been savagely weakened in a rising tide of drugs and violence. Families break down, and in so many places and in so many ways, gangs have moved in to fill the void created when people have nothing else to which they can belong, no other unit in which they are the most important person in the world.

What are we to do about this, my fellow Americans? I could give you the best economic policy this country has ever seen, and to be sure, if elected President, that is exactly what I will try to do. But how can we revitalize America when one 8-year-old steals his brother’s gun in Chicago and takes it to school and shoots another 8-year-old? . . .

Where does it all end? I ask you all today to think about that because, in 1980, President Reagan said that the test for electing a President who wants to be reelected is: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Well, if that’s the test, George Bush cannot be reelected.

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But that is not enough of a test. Because if all we ask is whether you or you or you are better off, what about us? We have been divided in this country for too long between us and them. Each and every election we see a fresh new slate of arguments and ads telling us that “they” are the problem, not us. They the minorities, they the Democrats. . . . Pretty soon, there are so many “thems” there are no longer any us’s. But there can be no “them” in America. There’s only us.

. . . Those of us who live our comfortable lives--we pay for the division and failure in America. We pay for it in the crime rates. . . . We pay for it when our tax dollars go to build jails instead of to educate children. We pay for it when our health care bills explode. . . . We pay for it when our economy goes downhill, because there are too many adults who are too illiterate to work in a global economy. . . . If you live in a country where people don’t count, you pay for it. . . .

Tonight, I just think we ought to say: As Americans, in this election, we want to do more than rebuild our economy. We want to rebuild our American community. We want to put people first again and push value on humanity and say that little children are going to have a good, safe, decent, clean, prosperous country to grow up in. We will not let their dreams die.

We must begin by reclaiming safety and order and lawfulness in our streets. Crime breeds poverty just as much as poverty breeds crime. . . .

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For the last 11 years we have reduced our efforts to put police on the street when we should have intensified them. I have offered a program to put more police on the streets of our cities, to allow the same law enforcement officers to walk the same blocks day in and day out, to work as friends with their neighbors to prevent crime . . . as well as to catch criminals. . . .

I’ll tell you something else. . . . Too many kids have too many guns. . . . There is a law before Congress today that could have been passed last year, that would have simply required a waiting period before any American can buy a handgun, to see whether they are underage, have a criminal background, have a drug history or have a mental health history.

It would not infringe on anybody’s right to keep and bear arms, but it would make our streets safer. The Brady bill should pass the United States Congress and be signed by the President of the United States.

We must rebuild the American family. We must make it easier to bring healthy babies into the world.

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Do you know that in many of our cities, a child has a smaller chance of living to be a year old than a child in Shanghai, China? Every day, when low-birth-weight babies are brought into the world with mental and physical limitations they will carry for the rest of their lives, the rest of us give $1,500 a day to pay for them because we have stubbornly refused to follow the lead of other advanced nations and provide basic primary and preventive health care to all the people in this country, to control the cost of health care. . . .

And if you vote for me, I’ll tell you something else: I’ll try to pass family leave and more child care, but I want this country to have a much tougher system of child-support enforcement too. I think we have too many parents who believe that governments raise children. But they don’t; people must. . . .

Let’s not kid ourselves: So many people who go into these gangs, deal drugs and commit acts of violence were never the most important person in the world to anyone. They were never connected to a better future. They were never given enough love or discipline, enough order or emotion to build a healthy life. We must do that within the communities.

No President can promise to wipe the stain of crime and drugs and lost human wreckage away from the schools of any community in America unless the people are willing to take responsibility--each and every one of them--to lift up the children in their communities.

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So I say to you tonight, my fellow citizens of America and my fellow Southerners, think of the long road we have walked in the last 25 or 30 years. Look at this crowd tonight: black and white together, people who want to reclaim their country to restore the values of freedom, fairness, progress and community. If we can do this to achieve more political equality, how can we stand by and let the very fabric of our society rot out from under us? Yet that is what we are doing.

It does not have to be that these children die in the streets of our cities. It does not have to be that their lives are lost to crime, drugs and gangs. It does not have to be that our schools fail just because the children who are in them come from families that are troubled.

Let us resolve in this election: Yes, to have a new economic direction; yes, to organize to compete and win; but first, to bind up the wounds of this nation. Because every child counts. Let us say again to our fellow Americans in Los Angeles: Stop the violence. Sit down in a room. Talk to one another. The one thing we have here that we learned the hard way is that we never got anywhere in this part of the country from shouting at one another. When we started talking to one another, we found out that we were a lot more alike than we thought.

Forty-five years ago when I was born to a widowed mother . . . in a state with an income barely half the national average, my people knew that life could matter. Because at least we had family and neighborhood and community, and we knew that if we worked hard and played by the rules, we’d be rewarded. I had a chance to get a good education and work my way through college and law school, to see the world and to live the life that I dreamed of living, because the system worked for people who were in difficult circumstances.

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Today in Los Angeles, in Atlanta, in every major urban area and more rural areas in this country, people who play by the rules are not being rewarded. . . .

Go home tonight and think of those people on the streets in Los Angeles, terrified in their homes, fires burning all around, no belief in justice or progress. Say to them, in your own way: “I’m going to do the best I can this year to be a good American, to rebuild the safety of our streets, the sanctity of our families, the strength of our communities and the vitality of our economy.” That is what my campaign is all about and what together we can do . . . for America in 1992.

NEXT: George Bush.

THE CANDIDATES’ KEY THEMES

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Campaign Clipboard

* No more politics of division

* There is no “them,” only “us”

* Strengthen the family

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* Rebuild the American community

* More police on the streets

* Gun control

* Health care

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* Individuals must take responsibility


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