Bernie Sanders talks income inequality, racial justice at town hall

(Photo credit: Claire Cecil/Fourth Estate)

On Oct. 28, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Mason’s campus.

The senator (VT-I) hosted what his campaign called a National Student Town Hall in a gym in the Recreation and Athletic Complex. Sanders covered many major points of his platform, including income inequality, climate change and others, with an emphasis on reforming the penal system and addressing racial justice.

He also stressed his view that young people can be a force of change if they participate in the democratic system and exercise their right to vote.

Audience members in the packed gym listened to Sanders as well as students across the nation who were able to tune in via live stream. At the podium, Sanders announced that 300 colleges and universities were watching the event, among other locations.

Both groups had a chance to ask Sanders questions during the final segment of the event, however, the town hall began with Mason sophomore Ja’Lisha Urquhart introducing Sanders. She called students to action and said they could be the force responsible for making Sanders the next president.

“We are the revolution, and we are starting right now,” she said.

After getting the crowd to repeatedly chant, “I feel the Bern!” Urquhart made way for Sanders to take the stage. He briefly summarized the issues he would discuss that night, then stepped back to allow three college students — one from Georgetown, George Washington and the University of Maryland — to express their support for Sanders. They addressed the issues of money in politics, climate change and college affordability, respectively. Then, Sanders went back to the podium to spend more time on the issues of his platform.

Sanders devoted much of his time to expressing his ideas for reforming the criminal justice system, an issue he interwove with racial justice. He said the country is spending $80 billion a year “to lock people up” and that this money could serve a better purpose elsewhere.

“Instead of investing more and more money in jails and incarceration, we should be investing in jobs and education,” Sanders said, for which he received the first of many standing ovations.

He said the United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world, including China, and that these people are “disproportionately black and Latino.”

Sanders also said a black person is four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. One way to fix this problem, he said, is to remove the federal prohibition on the drug and “allow states to go forward as they best choose.”

“Oligarchy” was a term Sanders used repeatedly throughout the event. He emphasized his view that the United States government currently oversees an economic system that serves the few, not the many.

The United States has “a rigged economy,” Sanders said. “…Heads, corporations win. Tails, working people lose.”

He brought up the 2010 Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case as an example of how the government is tending towards oligarchy. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the conservative Citizens United organization and decided that it was unconstitutional to stop them from running ads for their anti-Hillary Clinton documentary. While direct donations to campaigns and political parties from corporations and unions remains illegal, the Supreme Court ruling allowed “independent political expenditures.” The court said these expenditures are used to exercise rights to free speech, and thus it is unconstitutional to prohibit them.

Sanders said this ruling should be overturned and advocated for public funding of elections in order to take the money out of politics.

He used climate change legislation as an example of how money from corporations wrongly influences politicians.

Sanders said lawmakers have “a moral responsibility” to address climate change, and it is a problem that goes “beyond political opinion.” He said the Republican party is ignoring science and should not be concerned with placating Big Oil campaign donors, a statement which earned him another standing ovation.

Hannah Gross, a sophomore majoring in environmental science, said she also thinks campaign money is playing a role in impeding policy action on climate change.

“I’m an environmental science major; I’m obviously really passionate about climate change,” Gross said. “…It’s a huge issue [and] I think people think in short-term, and it’s one of those long-term things that will become so much bigger if we don’t address it right now.”

Another popular point was Sanders’s complaints about the minimum wage. He said the minimum wage — currently $7.25 per hour — needs to be raised to a “living wage” of $15 per hour.

“Wages in America are just too damn low,” Sanders said.

While he was on the topic of wages, Sanders said it is time for equal pay among men and women, which prompted the crowd to again rise to its feet. He then asked the men alone to cheer, in order to show their support for this women’s movement.

Sanders also spoke about his plan for free tuition, although he did not elaborate much on the subject.

In a competitive global economy, Sanders said, “We need to make public colleges and universities tuition free,” in order to have the best educated workforce.

The crowd gave Sanders another standing ovation when he expressed his plan to guarantee government-provided healthcare to all. Samara Singer, a sophomore majoring in social work, especially supports this aspect of Sanders’s platform, since she is uninsured.

“I actually don’t have health insurance,” Singer said. “I can’t afford it. I can’t get it through my parents…The Affordable Health [sic] Care Act, it does help. Like he said, 50 million more people now have health insurance, but it doesn’t cover everyone.”

In response to questions from the present and virtual audience, Sanders touched on immigration reform and his stance on war before wrapping up the event.

He denounced racism towards undocumented immigrants to loud cheers from the crowd and called for “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “path toward citizenship.”

He also reminded the crowd that he voted against the Iraq war and said “war must be the last resort” to yet another standing ovation.

Repeating a sentiment he had uttered throughout the town hall, Sanders told the crowd of students that they can be the vehicle of change.

“Don’t fall into trap of thinking small,” he cautioned towards the end of his speech.

He ended his time at the podium with reiterating his plans on reforming the criminal justice system, citing black citizens who have died in custody such as Sandra Bland and Eric Gardner, among others as examples of institutionalized racism. This statement garnered loud cheers and much applause from the crowd, which continued as Sanders left the stage.

Singer hoped audience members found Sanders’s speech empowering and would feel encourage to vote in the upcoming election.