All across the country ‘Black Lives Matter’ and similar activists are making their voices heard. The crisis of racial injustice no longer lurks on the periphery of the political discussion but rather it is, and should be, an essential issue for any legitimate Presidential candidate in 2016. Equality for all should be inalienable in the minds of every decent human being, but make no mistake — what is being talked about is not a ‘ white lives matter’ or an ‘all lives matter’ issue, it is a targeted and specific response to the multi-faceted disaster faced by African-Americans in the United States today. And in the 2016 Presidential election the candidate with the most progressive and comprehensive platform to attack this catastrophe is Bernie Sanders. Additionally, perhaps as important in our age of political doublespeak and pandering for votes, no candidate can come close to his 50+ year history as a civil rights champion.
Police Violence, A Racial Disaster
The statistics surrounding police violence in the United States are staggering, particularly relating to the African-American community. In 2015 alone over 1000 people were killed by police, and, despite making up only 13% of the population as a whole, over 30% of those killed were African-American. Even more appalling is that, in total, over 20% of those killed were unarmed, and again disproportionately, 33% of African-Americans killed by police were unarmed. Most shockingly, almost 40% of all unarmed people killed by police were African-American.
The truly infuriating aspect of all of this are the responses given by ‘leadership’, both politicians and law enforcement authorities, the majority of the time these types of things happen. When a police officer kills a civilian they are indicted in less than 1% of cases. Time and time again police leadership points to the ‘one bad apple’ theory, despite a poll showing that 84% of police officers say they have “witnessed fellow officers using more force than necessary”. Even more enraging is the textbook response usually given by political leaders preaching calm, urging patience, and promising some vague and far-off idea of change. How many people have to be murdered in the streets before anger is justified? How many times do African-Americans have to see their children, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents executed before exasperation legitimately turns to rage?
Fortunately Bernie Sanders is not a textbook politician.
“People are angry and they have a right to be angry. This violence fills us with outrage, disgust, and a deep, deep sadness”.
In 1963, one year after a 20 year old Bernie Sanders, as a Congress on Racial Equality officer, was arrested for leading a sit-in to oppose housing segregation at the University of Chicago where he was a student, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was here he witnessed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Reminiscing as an older man as to why a 21 year old white kid from the northern part of America would do this he said “We saw our friends getting the shit kicked out of them and getting beaten to hell”. 50 years later when events in Ferguson, Missouri caused national fervor Bernie Sanders broke from the conciliatory and tranquilizing attitude of most of the political establishment. He advocated to his colleagues in the Senate for a thorough federal investigation. He wrote letters to the editor in the New York Times proposing legislative change. He appeared on MSNBC and said the police, due to their use of humvees and heavy weaponry, appeared to be an “occupying army”. He spoke on CNN saying “Black suspects have been murdered and that is unacceptable. Police officers have got to be held accountable for their actions”. At a time when Republicans and the ‘right wing’ media were using derogatory language to victim-blame and so-called liberals were softly counseling calm, Bernie Sanders used his position in the Senate as a megaphone to shout from the rooftops things which crucially needed to be said.
In running for President in 2015/16 the megaphone only got louder, and the rooftop taller. No candidate has presented a more aggressive or extensive platform dealing with the issue of police reform than Bernie Sanders. He has called for police forces to better represent the diversity of the community in which they serve, including in leadership and training positions. In response to statistics like a poll where 61% of police officers said they “do not always report serious abuse by fellow officers” Bernie has proposed a system which would better allow ‘good’ officers to report actions of the ‘bad’ without fear of retaliation. On the issue of cases where a civilian is killed by a police officer resulting in an indictment less than 1% of the time, he has demanded the requirement of an investigation by the Attorney General whenever anyone is killed while in police custody, while also calling for increased civilian oversight of police departments. Most dramatically, and perhaps most importantly, Bernie has demanded that we “reinvent how we police America”. Quite simply, police officers in the United States are fundamentally trained differently than in other places in the ‘developed’ world. The result of this training is an atmosphere where guns are drawn prematurely, where officers fluctuate between great fear and hyper-aggressiveness, and where far, far too many people end up killed by police. Bernie has spoken strongly in favor of a new training model, designed with input from activists and civil rights organizations, constructed to teach officers to de-escalate the situation, as well as how to interact with those with mental illness. Anybody who has followed some of the heartbreaking stories of the past few years knows that these two elements would undeniably save lives. The United States cannot continue to be a place where African-Americans, including children, the elderly, and the innocent, are disproportionately executed by agents designed to protect them. There must be a vocal population supported by an ambitious police reform, and Bernie Sanders has proposed exactly that.
The Inequality of a Hyperactive Justice System
“If you want to get tough on crime let’s deal with the causes of crime. Let’s not keep disproportionately punishing blacks” -Bernie Sanders in Congress, 1991
The justice system in America is broken. It is absurd that a country with just over 4% of the world’s population, one advertised as the richest and most free, has almost 25% of the world’s prison population. The United States has more people in prison than China or Russia, not only proportionately but in total. Predictably African-Americans are ludicrously over-represented within this number. While making up only 13% of the population of the United States (as mentioned above), African-Americans make up 40% of the prison population. Despite what you might hear on Fox News this is not due to some sort of inherent “thug” character flaw in black men, or a fundamental defect in African-American communities. Rather the problem is a justice system steeped in structural racism and disparity of reporting, enforcement, and punishment. A simple yet illuminating example; Statistics show that approximately 12% of Americas drug users are African-American, yet 34% of people arrested for drug offenses are, you guessed it, African-American.
Speaking of drugs, is there any doubt as to the monumental failure that the ‘war on drugs’ has been? Reports suggest that Americans are paying upwards of $40 billion per year jailing inmates and within the prison population nearly 50% of inmates are serving time for drug related crime. Conversely under 3% of inmates are imprisoned for violent crimes such as homicide, aggravated assault, or kidnapping. Combined with the numbers listed above on the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans arrested for drug offenses it is clear that this so called ‘war on drugs’ has acted functionally as a war on black communities.
There are two facets which need to be immediately addressed to stop this war, both of which have been spoken on passionately and fought for repeatedly by Bernie Sanders.
The first is the need to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, notably for those related to the ‘war on drugs’, and specifically for marijuana based offenses. Bernie articulated a powerful message when he said;
“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change”
Additionally he has and continues to express his position through policy. For example, his Smarter Sentencing Act in 2014 was designed to adjust mandatory sentencing guidelines, specifically with relation to drug offenses, before it was defeated in the Senate. Also, Bernie has said that as President he will support the decriminalization of marijuana, the use of medicinal marijuana, and the rights of states to legalize if they so choose.
The second glaring issue with regards to the obscene overpopulation of prisons in the United States is that of private/for-profit corporate prisons. Incredible as it may seem, the prison industry spends millions of dollars lobbying the government for things like harsher sentencing laws in order to increase their earnings at the expense of the American people. It is grotesque that any American should have their rehabilitation process decided by those who seek to profit from it, and even more twisted that African-American communities should disproportionately feel the brunt of this corporate agenda. Bernie Sanders has been outspoken on the need to ban for-profit corporate prisons and his Justice Is Not For Sale Act would do just that. Stated simply, Bernie believes “incarceration should be about rehabilitation and public safety, not profit”.
The final piece of the puzzle with regards to reforming the justice system is, for Bernie Sanders, perhaps the biggest piece. This is the piece dealing not with crime and punishment, but with rehabilitation and root cause.
From 1991 –
“If you want to get tough on crime let’s deal with the causes of crime. Lets not keep disproportionately punishing blacks”
to 2015 –
“African-American youth unemployment is 51%. It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids”
And in the time in between Bernie has continuously and relentlessly been an advocate on this issue. In the 1990’s he was one of the only white members of Congress to vote against ending a federal education funding program for prison inmates. In 2000 he voted for a bill supporting alternative sentencing and rehabilitation. In 2007 he co-sponsored the Recidivism Reduction and Second Chance Act designed to expand re-entry projects and services for offenders and their families. And in addition to the forceful reorganization of the justice system as discussed above, Bernie Sanders has stated a strong desire to, as President, tackle the root causes of crime through initiatives such as free public college, and a $5.5 billion investment in job training and creation for disadvantaged young Americans.
It is no longer possible to look away from the embarrassing truth of the American justice system, and even less so to ignore what Bernie has called the “unspeakable tragedy” of the over-representation of African-Americans within. Reform must take place in the definition of who is a criminal, how criminals are rehabilitated, and in the idea of crime prevention itself. These are topics which have been the focus of Bernie Sanders for decades during his career as a politician.
Voter Suppression and the Subversion of Democracy
“Anybody who is suppressing the vote, anybody who is intentionally trying to keep people from voting because the candidate knows that those people would vote against him or her, that person is a political coward. If you don’t have the guts to run for office on your ideas, then you shouldn’t run for office at all.” – Bernie Sanders
It is hard to believe that the policies and rhetoric of racism which seem to fundamentally inhabit the platform of many Republican politicians can still exist in the United States. A large contributing factor to the existence of these types of ideas in mainstream American politics today can be directly attributed to voter suppression. If politicians who advocated these ideas received a properly representative portion of voter support it would become clear that in most cases they represented a fringe and dying ideology. But, much as in the days of segregation and the civil rights movement when voter suppression was crucial in propping up a decaying dogma, today voter suppression allows racist and xenophobic politicians to seem legitimate.
In 2013 the Supreme Court said “Voting discrimination still exists, no one doubts that”. Unfortunately they said this as they were in the midst of gutting the Voting Rights Act. In the time of segregation and the civil rights movement voting was suppressed by intentionally racist literacy laws and poll taxes, as well as racial gerrymandering. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was introduced to prevent this type of racial discrimination in the voting system and resulted in mass enfranchisement of African-Americans. But in 2013 the Supreme court ruled that, contrary to the Voting Rights Act, states would be allowed to change electoral laws without approval of the federal government. The results were as predictable as they were destructive, a whole new generation of voter suppression was effectively condoned. As Bernie Sanders said at the time, “The Supreme Court turned back the clock on equality”.
Today votes are no longer suppressed by literacy laws and poll taxes, but through other means which are, sadly, just as overtly racist. In many states individuals are not allowed to vote without a photo ID. This is harmful to the 11% of voters without the required identification, but dramatically more so to the estimated 25% of African-American voters who do not have photo ID. In some states felons are unable to vote, even after they have paid their debt to society. The disproportionate representation of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, as discussed in the section above, shows this as another tool to suppress the vote along racial lines. Gerrymandering is as brutal now as it ever was, and can regularly be shown to be targeted along racial boundaries. And all of this does not even begin to discuss the lack of polling locations, or the lack of staff and hours of operation of said polling locations, in communities which are predominantly African-American, further dissuading people in those communities from voting.
As seen in the quote which started this section, voter suppression appears to be something which personally offends Bernie Sanders, as it does many Americans, both as a racist debacle and an affront to democracy as a whole. In response to the Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act Bernie co-sponsored the Voting Rights Amendment Act in the Senate. In response to certain states banning or restricting felons from voting he co-sponsored the Democracy Restoration Act. In addition, no presidential candidate has presented such a comprehensive platform to restore and strengthen the voting rights of all Americans. Bernie has expressed his desire to prohibit states from banning those without photo identification from voting. To ensure all Americans have an opportunity to vote he has proposed making election day a federal holiday, making early voting an option for those who work and study, and increasing both the number of polling locations and employees specifically in under-serviced communities. He has also asserted his belief that it should be the responsibility of the government and not the individual to register to vote all those who turn 18 or move to a new state.
To exclude individuals from voting is an embarrassment to democracy, and to do so based on race is a travesty. With the full enfranchisement articulated by Bernie Sanders, it is inevitable that the antiquated views of those who would suppress the vote be swept thankfully into the dustbin of history.
The Next President of the United States……
Through much of American history the position of most high-level politicians towards the African-American community has fallen somewhere between open racism and cautious lip service. But in 2016 there is a candidate with a legitimate opportunity to become the next President of the United States who has spent 50 years fighting for civil rights in both words and deeds. This is a man who regularly quotes Martin Luther King when he speaks. This is a man who in 1988 supported Jesse Jackson’s bid to become President, helping him win the almost entirely white state of Vermont. This is a man who has repeatedly spoken forcefully, often at times when it was unpopular to do so, on civil rights issues, and has consistently acted by tabling progressive legislation. It should be personally repulsive for all Americans to live in a country where the systemic oppression and destruction of a group of people exists. It absolutely has to be the policy of any presidential candidate to address these issues, and for Bernie Sanders it definitively is.
I will leave you with the words of rapper and activist Michael “Killer Mike” Render, himself a powerful speaker and dynamic voice on civil rights.
“Look at that picture of Dr. King that’s been on your Gramma’s wall for your whole life and say to yourself ‘who’s policies best identify with that?’, and vote for that person. In my case, that’s Senator Sanders”