Bernie’s Social Justice Experience
Ever wonder why Bernie Sanders is so cool and hip to the plight of the marginal classes? He learned it community organizing and working street level politics in Chicago. Barack Obama also cut his teeth politically in the Windy City. Bernie was there first.
Bernie On His Chicago Days
As some of you may know,
I spent four years in Chicago in the early sixties
as a student at the University of Chicago.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Those four years in Chicago were an extraordinary time for me and very much shaped my worldview and what I wanted to do with my life.
I should also say that while the University of Chicago was and is one of the great higher education institutions in this country, the truth is that I learned a lot more off campus than I did in classrooms.
As someone who came from a working class family, Chicago provided me, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to put two and two together in understanding how the real world worked. To understand what power was about in this country and who the people were who had that power. To learn a little bit about the causation of wars; to learn about racism and poverty and other social ills.
My years in Chicago gave me the opportunity to become involved in the civil rights movement, in the labor movement, in the peace movement and in electoral politics – experiences that significantly shaped my life.
As a student at the University of Chicago, I became involved with a civil rights organization called the Congress on Racial Equality, CORE, one of the leading civil rights groups of that period.
Now, some of you may not know this, but in the early 1960s, the University of Chicago owned segregated housing.
Being audacious young people, black and white, our chapter of CORE wanted to expose that unjust housing system. And so our CORE chapter sent white couples and black couples into the university-owned housing to pretend to look for an apartment. And you can guess what happened.
When the black couples showed up, there were just no apartments available. But a few hours later, when one of our white couples went in, somehow, mysteriously, they would have their choice of apartments.
After documenting this clear pattern of racial discrimination, the students in CORE demanded the university desegregate its housing. When they refused, we staged one of the first ever civil rights sit-ins in the North, forcing the university to acknowledge the situation and to consider serious policy changes.
While what we were doing here in Chicago at the time was significant, it came nowhere close to what young people our age were doing in the South in groups like SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were protesting – but they were putting their lives on the line, and some were getting killed.
In 1963 I, along with a busload of other students, took a 600-mile ride from Chicago to Washington, D.C. for what remains in my mind as an unforgettable day. We went to the nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of the great leaders in American history. I had the honor of being there to hear him deliver his now-famous “I Have A Dream” speech, and that was a day I have never forgotten.
That same year, we knew we had more to do in Chicago.
It had been nine years since the Brown vs Board of Education decision, but the school officials in Chicago had still refused to meaningfully desegregate the city’s public schools. Black schools were overcrowded and underfunded, with many students forced to share chairs and desks. Meanwhile, a report at the time found over 380 white classrooms were completely empty.
But instead of putting black children in those empty classrooms, the school officials decided to put old trailers on the black school grounds. We called them “Willis Wagons,” after the Chicago school superintendent of that time, Benjamin Willis.
These trailers were a monstrosity. Students would boil in the heat, and freeze in the cold. They were infested with rats. They were an insult and a disgrace – and the community fought back.
One day, many of us went to the spot where they planned to put the trailers. We were corralled by a police line and told not to cross that line.
Well, some of us did. And, of course, we were arrested and thrown into paddy wagons. We spent that night in jail, until we were bailed out the next morning by the NAACP.
The reason I tell you all of this is because my activities in Chicago taught me a very important lesson.
Whether it is the struggle against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or corporate greed, or environmental devastation, or war and militarism or religious bigotry – real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up when people, at the grassroots level, stand up and fight back. That’s a lesson I learned in Chicago, and a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Have we made progress in civil rights in this country since the early 1960s? No question about it. Do we still have a very long way to go to end the institutional racism which permeates almost every aspect of our society? Absolutely.
We have, in recent years, seen a major spike in hate crimes – against blacks, and Muslims, and Jews, and Latinos and other minorities.
And, over the last number of years, we have seen a terrible level of police violence against unarmed people of color – people killed by the police who should be alive today.
We know that African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested, and almost four times as likely to experience physical force in an encounter with the police.
Today, black men are sentenced to 19 percent more jail time for committing the exact same crime as white men, and African Americans are jailed at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
All of this and more is why we are finally going to bring about real criminal justice reform in this country. We are going to end the international embarrassment of having more people in jail than any other country on earth. Instead of spending $80 billion a year on jails and incarceration, we are going to invest in jobs and education for our young people. No more private prisons and detention centers. No more profiteering from locking people up. No more “war on drugs.” No more keeping people in jail because they’re too poor to afford cash bail.
And by the way, when we talk about criminal justice reform, we’re going to change a system in which tens of thousands of Americans every year get criminal records for possessing marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive went to jail for destroying our economy in 2008 as a result of their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior. No. They didn’t go to jail. They got a trillion-dollar bailout.
Our campaign is about fundamentally ending the disparity of wealth and power in this country. But as we do that, we must speak out against the disparity within the disparity.
Today, the average black family has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family.
Today, the infant mortality rate in black communities is more than double the rate for white communities, and the death rates from cancer and almost every other disease is far higher for blacks. Black women are three and a half times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women.
Today, Flint, Michigan is still without new pipes for clean water, and there are 3,000 other Flint, Michigans across the country – neighborhoods with lead rates that were double those of Flint during the height of its crisis.
Today, redlining prevents black-owned businesses from getting loans, and predatory lending results in higher interest rates in the African American community.
Whether it is a broken criminal justice system, or massive disparities in the availability of financial services, or health disparities, or environmental disparities, or educational disparities – our job is to create a nation in which all people are treated equally. That is what we must do, and that is what we will do.
Brothers and sisters: we have an enormous amount of work in front of us and the path forward will not be easy.
But if we stand together believing in justice and human dignity, the truth is that there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
Let us go forward together.
In solidarity, Bernie Sanders
Add your name if you agree: it’s time to transform our country and create a government that works for all of us, not just the billionaire class.
Bernie cannot do it alone. We will only succeed if we are in this fight together. Not me. Us.