Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate draws huge crowd in Massachusetts for stump speech sprinkled with sketched ideas for reform
Bernie Sanders decried “an institutional racism that allows and continues to allow unarmed African Americans to be killed by police” on Saturday night, as he preached to a huge crowd in Boston that welcomed the Democratic presidential candidate’s now familiar vision of “political revolution”.
Sanders alluded to a string of high-profile police killings of unarmed black people, and to a subsequent series of grand jury decisions not to indict officers involved in some cases.
“It is not easy being a cop today,” Sanders told the crowd. “Many of them are underpaid, their schedules are terrible, and their family life is very stressful.
“But like any other public official when a police officer breaks the law that officer must be held accountable.”
The Vermont senator, who has for months gained on frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race both in polling and fundraising, then sketched goals to reform a criminal justice system that he said was “broken and is in deep need of reform”.
“Our job is to make police departments look like the communities they serve,” he said. “Our job is to make sure non-violent offenders do not get locked up, our job is to rethink the war on drugs, our job is to demilitarize police departments, our job is to end mandatory minimum sentences.”
Sanders’ apparent decision to embrace the cause of burgeoning civil rights movement, loosely organized under the banner Black Lives Matter, comes weeks after activists upstaged the senator at one of his own campaign events.
Sanders also outlined ideas to reform other stages of criminal justice system, a cause recently taken up by President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Koch Industries and a handful of Democrats and Republicans.
In what was largely a stump speech, Sanders embraced the cause more in spirit than specifics, railing against overspending on prisons – “$80bn every year locking people up” – and saying the US should invest instead in more education and jobs.
The senator also mentioned the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Thursday, in which nine people died, linking the attack to the racially motivated murder of nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina in June.
“All of us are disgusted, frustrated, bewildered in seeing every month, every two months, a sick individual walk into a school, walk into a church, take out a gun and start killing people,” he said. “Our hearts go out to the people of Oregon for what they have experienced in the last few days.”
He suggested the US should enact several plans, including closing the loophole that allow unlicensed gun dealers to sell without background checks, “end the sale and distribution of semi-automatic weapons whose only goal is to kill people”, and start “a revolution in terms of mental health in this country”.
“Maybe if we do all of these things we can lessen the likelihood of these horrendous disasters,” he said.
Campaign staffers could not immediately provide an official estimate for the crowd inside the packed Boston Convention Center, but the venue can hold more than 25,000 people and organizers estimated that some 4,000 people filled the overflow room after the main hall filled up. Others braved cold, wet weather to watch the speech outside on a Jumbotron.
Sanders has a slight lead over Clinton in New Hampshire and has gained on the former secretary of state in Iowa, two key primary states. He has vowed not to run negative ads about Clinton, instead directing his ire toward Republicans, whom he called “cowards” over voting rights and “an international embarrassment” for “rejecting science” of climate change.
Without naming names, Sanders also denounced Donald Trump, the billionaire and Republican frontrunner who has dominated the polls for months despite – or because of – inflammatory comments about immigrants, his rivals, reporters and critics in general.
Sanders denounced Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”, saying that the remark was “demagoguery” that he would not tolerate.
The two candidates, although ideological opposites, have drawn comparisons for their respective bursts of popularity, which have tapped into dissatisfaction with establishment candidates such as Clinton and Jeb Bush but befuddled the conventional logic of election season.