U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders brought his fiery, long shot bid for the presidency to Baton Rouge on Saturday night, blasting what he called entrenched racism, income inequality and a “rigged” economy that penalizes the middle class.
“This country has more crises probably than at any time since the Great Depression,” he said during a 35-minute speech.
Sanders, 73, made his comments to the 57th annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was initially led by African-American ministers as a nonviolent way to promote desegregation in the early days of the civil rights movement.
It was first headed by Martin Luther King Jr., and Sanders told the group he was on hand for King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963.
Sanders also was scheduled to make brief remarks Saturday night at the Democrats annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Orleans.
He plans to hold a town hall meeting at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Sanders rattled off a litany of statistics that he said backs up claims of pervasive racism and added that if current trends continue, one in four African-Americans born today can expect to spend time in prison.
He said African-Americans, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, are three times more likely than white motorists to be searched during a traffic stop.
“That is racism, and that has to end,” he said during comments that sparked frequent applause.
Sanders said a wide range of steps are needed to end high-profile cases of what he called African-Americans being targeted by police, such as those involving Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
One needed reform, he said, is to end the practice of some police departments looking like armies.
“We have to demilitarize our police departments,” Sanders said.
Community policing, he said, also is overdue.
“Police departments should look like the community they are policing,” Sanders said.
He said police also should be taught that “force and violence” should be last steps, prison recidivism has to be trimmed and for-profit prisons should be abolished.
Sanders said the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world.
“Something is very wrong,” he said.
While Democrat Hillary Clinton remains a heavy favorite for her party’s nomination, Sanders’ bid has jolted the campaign by drawing big, enthusiastic crowds to hear the white-haired father of four and grandfather of seven.
Sanders is an independent, calls himself a “democratic socialist” and caucuses and often votes with U.S. Senate Democrats.
He appeals to liberals who contend that Clinton is not liberal enough, especially since U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, another firebrand of the left, has said she will not seek the presidency.
Sanders did not mention Clinton or other Democrat rivals for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, a sharp contrast from the infighting among Republican contenders for their party’s nomination.
On his other key topic, Sanders repeatedly blasted what he called the hold on wealth by a minority of people, arguing that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of taxpayers hold nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
“In the last 40 years, the middle class has been disappearing,” he said. “The answer is very simple. We have a rigged economy.”
He said, “This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable.”
Sanders quoted King as saying the U.S. has “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Sanders is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and he said his father arrived in the U.S. from Poland at the age of 17.
He is serving his second term in the U.S. Senate — he was re-elected in 2012 — and before that was a member of the U.S. House for 16 years.
Sanders also served four terms as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, which has about 42,000 residents in a state of about 626,000.
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