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Bill Clinton’s visit to Philly went from a stump speech for his wife’s presidential candidacy to a defense of his own, and it happened on a dime.

The tone of Clinton’s speech during Thursday’s appearance at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in Mount Airy turned as he mentioned his wife’s support of re-entry programs. Protesters from the Philadelphia Coalition for Real Justice had a problem with that. It’s unclear what the first line from the protester was, but how Bill answered is making headlines.

“See here’s the thing, I like protesters, but the ones that won’t let you answer are afraid of truth,” he said. “They say the welfare reform bill increased poverty. Then why did we have the largest drop in African American poverty in history when I was president?”

Yes. This is how the sax-playing friend of Arsenio responded to a protester’s issues over mass incarceration.

Clinton started to pivot.

They’re trying to blame her for things she didn’t do,” he said. “So I’ll tell you about another place where black lives matter. Africa.”

“No she didn’t!” Erica Mines screamed at Clinton, to his insistence that his wife valued black life. “She don’t care about black people. She wants the black vote and that’s it.”

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He continued going right back at the protestors.

“Now look, what’s she’s referring to is the increased sentencing provisions in the 1994 crime bill,” he clarified to the crowd. He later said the protestors standing near the front of the venue didn’t want to hear “the truth,” saying: “When somebody won’t hush and listen to you, that’s not democracy. They’re afraid of the truth.”

Things devolved and the yelling continued. Clinton kept shooting back.

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African American children,” he told the protesters from the podium. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens — she didn’t.”

The appearance drew quick notice from the Daily Beast, and seems likely to draw attention away from his main message, that Hillary Clinton is the best for the economy, national security and affordable education. Before the clash with protestors, Bill worked hard to woo the Philly crowd, thanking the city for its longtime support, for helping him take Pennsylvania both times he ran for the White House and for being his son-in-law’s hometown.

“He literally weeps every time the Eagles lose,” the former president told the crowd.

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Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Last year, Clinton’s tune about his own crime bill in the 90’s was different. During a meeting of the national NAACP here in Philadelphia, Clinton said of his signature legislation: “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.”

But Thursday’s rally left many in the crowd upset. Multiple times, he told the audience in a black subsection of a racially-mixed neighborhood that Hillary had the support of civil rights activists. He reminded the crowd how civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis supported Clinton: “I’m still with her because she’s always been there with us.”

“I don’t think he addressed [what we said] really,” Farmer told Billy Penn after the rally ended. “He doesn’t have anything to say about that.”

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Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

As supporters left the rally, a few came up to Farmer and Mines to express disappointment. Luis Diaz exchanged black power salutes with Farmer, and then the two started a healthy debate.

“What we’re doing is effective,” Farmer told Diaz.

“People aren’t really hearing that,” Diaz replied, adding that the protesters’ message wasn’t getting across. But he didn’t really understand his beef with Hillary in general.

“You pick Donald Trump? One of them is going to be president. No way around that, so do you pick Donald Trump?”

“We shouldn’t have a capitalist system at all, good brother,” Farmer said. “I’m thinking outside of the box.”

“There’s never going to be that president,” Diaz responded. “You gotta think about reality.”

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for BillyPenn.com. She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...