Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders faced pointed questions about his specific proposals for investing in black communities during a forum Friday at Patrick Henry High School sponsored by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC).
Sanders, a senator from Vermont, promoted his progressive platform calling for a $15 minimum wage, free public higher education, universal healthcare, an overhaul of the criminal justice system and more investments in small businesses, but declined to directly address questions about whether he supported reparations for African Americans.
He said he would focus government investments and interventions toward low-income communities most in need — including black, Latino and white neighborhoods.
“We should invest most heavily in those communities most in need. When you have 35 percent of black children living in poverty, when you have half the kids in this country in public schools on free and reduced lunches, when youth unemployment in the African community is 51 percent, those are exactly the kinds of communities that you invest in,” Sanders said.
When someone in the audience urged him to say the word “black,” Sanders fired back: “I’ve said black 50 times. That’s the 51st time.”
Sanders also delivered a strong critique of the criminal justice system and said police officers need to held accountable when they break the law.
“We need to end the militarization of local police departments,” he said. “Police departments should not look like occupying armies. They should be part of the community, not intimidating the community.”
He also said a black male born today stands a one and four chance of ending up in jail. “That is absolutely and totally unacceptable,” he said, adding the country should be making more investments in education and health care instead of prisons.
Sanders attended the forum before joining his political rival former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Minnesota DFL Humphrey-Mondale Dinner in St. Paul.
Clinton declined an invitation to the event because of a scheduling conflict, according to NOC.
Hundreds of people packed a gymnasium at Patrick High School for NOC’s Black American Forum. Congressman Keith Ellison also delivered a strong endorsement of Sanders before the forum started.
North Minneapolis-based NOC is a major player in the local fight to reduce the city and state’s notorious racial disparities.
“This forum was a historic opportunity for community members to engage with a presidential candidate and ask for real solutions,” said Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “Democracy at its finest is raw and unscripted and messy, engaging people who are traditionally left out of the process. That’s what happened tonight.”
He said Sanders didn’t deliver specific policy solutions, but commended him for attending the event.
“But the fact that Senator Sanders committed a full hour to the discussion is a great start to a centuries-old problem. Election Day is a long way away. There’s still time,” he said.
Sanders won the Democratic New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. Now presidential candidates are focused on courting voters in South Carolina in anticipation of the state’s Republican primary on Feb. 20 and the Democratic primary on Feb. 27.
Precinct caucuses will be held in Minnesota on Tuesday, March 1.