CHICAGO—During campaign stops here, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke with Black and Latino youth and community activists in two separate invitation-only meetings.
Accompanied by supporters, Dr. Cornel West, hip-hop activist Killer Mike, Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Mr. Sanders delivered straight talk many believe is missing from most political candidates.
Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) called Dec. 23 for systemic change in police departments across the U.S., improved strategies for community policing and reform of the criminal justice system.
“We need real police reform, and the bottom line is lethal force should be the last option, not the first option,” he said.
As a University of Chicago student in the 1960s he fought against segregated housing owned by the university and segregated schools throughout the city. Instead of the “school to prison pipeline,” he wants to make every public college and university tuition-free so there can be a “pipeline from school to promising future.”
“Much has changed over the decades, but unfortunately, some things have not. Institutional racism existed then, institutional racism exists today,” said Sen. Sanders. “The criminal justice system was broken then, the criminal justice system remains broken today, and that is the sad reality of where we are as a country,” he added.
“I consider the issues of institutional racism and reforming the broken criminal justice system one of the most important things that a president of the United States can do,” said Sen. Sanders.
He has said it is an embarrassment that the U.S. has more people in jail than any other country on the planet, has called for abolishing the death penalty, reducing incarceration of those convicted of non-violent offenses, and ending militarization of police departments.
“It is stunning to me when you turn on the television and you see Ferguson and other communities, and you see police departments that look like occupying forces—you’d think you’re in Iraq or Afghanistan or someplace, not the United States of America. We have got to demilitarize our police departments. I want police departments to be a part of their communities, not seen as oppressive forces,” he said.
According to Sen. Sanders’ national press secretary, Symone D. Sanders, it was important for the candidate to come to the city during a swing through the Midwest to hear from some of the young vocal organizers who have been on the frontlines.
Although the meeting with those activists was short, their questions dealt with issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, legalization of marijuana and ending prisons for profit.
Commissioner Garcia hosted a community gathering at El Pollo Felíz in the Little Village area, also known as Pilsen, and said once word went out Sen. Sanders would be in town, so many people wanted to see him that many had to be turned away.
“He made some very strong statements rooted in truth,” said Mr. Garcia. “This is a very important time where we can achieve lots of reforms on the criminal justice front, and I think today, he laid out a pretty comprehensive agenda of key ingredients to make that happen,” he added.
Dr. West said he is supporting Sen. Sanders because of his integrity. He understands the feelings expressed by those who have become disenchanted with the political process, however, there are moral and spiritual qualities that also have to be considered when choosing a candidate to support.
“We live in the age of the sellout,” said Dr. West. “The disenchantment is justified given that most of the politicians are liars and crooks, but the question is how do you find someone with integrity and then put pressure on them—especially with the focus on poor people and a focus on working people and disproportionately chocolate people? That’s why the moral and spiritual issues are as important as the political,” said Dr. West.
Following his appearance at Village Leadership Academy, many were eager to share their thoughts on the senator from Vermont’s message.
Public policy analyst Dr. Amara Enyia, 31, said Sen. Sanders has energized many during his presidential run and she considers him a “truth teller.”
“I think he has a platform that really speaks to the issues of working people in Chicago. I think he is a candidate who is very candid who is willing to call out the issues of income inequality, which I think are some of the biggest issues affecting this country. If we are going to have transformative change, he is the candidate who is talking about—at the policy level—transformative mechanisms to transform society,” Dr. Enyia continued. “He’s a truth teller at a time when we really need the truth to be told.”
Community activist Tara Stamps is a delegate for Sen. Sanders and recently organized an “Illinois Women for Bernie Sanders” mobilization. She is encouraging Black people to vote for him because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is a typical politician who will say anything to get elected.
“I think on the issues that matter most to Black folks, he lines up and his politics have been consistent. I think that it is going to be imperative that we weigh in on this race in a mighty way if we want the trajectory of what is happening in our communities to change in any measurable way,” said Ms. Stamps.
“We all know that Hillary is bought and paid for by corporate interests, will say anything and she is desperate and desperate people are dangerous, and she is a desperate woman.”