Racial-Justice Vision Draws Harlem Ovations for Bernie

      MANHATTAN (CN) – In a capacity crowd brought to its feet at the Apollo, one woman told Sen. Bernie Sanders about her family’s upheaval in the war on drugs.
     Initially undecided about who to support in the presidential primary New York will hold on April 19, Linda Khumalo fought back tears Saturday as she told Sanders about her brother.
     “His name is Bongani Calhoun, also known as 29023280,” she told the senator. “He is in federal prison on a 15-year federal drug sentencing.”
     Back in 2013, Calhoun’s bid to overturn his conviction on drug-conspiracy charges sparked handwringing but no relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.
     Calhoun had insisted at trial in Texas that he was an unwitting bystander in a friend’s drug deal, but the federal prosecutor cross-examining him on the witness stand used a racist stereotype to undermine the argument.
     “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Ponder had said. “Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”
     With his public defender having failed to object at the time, Calhoun waited until seeking Supreme Court certiorari to challenge the remark.
     The challenge proved too late. Though the high court refused to hear the case, saying Calhoun had forfeited his argument by not bringing it up earlier, Justice Sonia Sotomayor signaled remorse for Calhoun’s predicament.
     “By suggesting that race should play a role in establishing a defendant’s criminal intent, the prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation,” a statement from Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina justice, states.
     Many at the Apollo had not heard about Calhoun’s case before his sister shared it with the crowd, but her story struck a familiar chord. Sanders alternately shook his head sadly, or nodded in recognition. The crowded cheered Khumalo on when she lost her composure, and members of the audience punctuated her speech with shouts of “Talk about it!” and “That’s what they do,” referring to law enforcement.
     “It’s three years now that he is in prison, basically on a technicality,” Khumalo said.
     “When are we going to let these people out,” she continued, “who are in there, not because they are guilty-“
     “But because they’re black!” one man interrupted.
     Completing her thought, Khumalo said, “But because once you are charged, and you can’t defend yourself, your life is gone.”
     Sanders saw Khumalo’s story as illustrating the need to “fundamentally rethink the war on drugs,” and to address the chronic understaffing in public defenders’ offices in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere across the country.
     “Is everyone in America – regardless of income – entitled to good legal representation?” he asked. “The answer is yes.”
     Sanders, the only candidate supporting the decriminalization of marijuana, also emphasized the need to address drugs “as a health issue and not a criminal issue.”
     “So many lives have been hurt and destroyed,” he said. “So these are very important issues, and I thank you very much for your willingness to come before us and raise it.”
     Khumalo voiced approval of the senator’s answer in an interview after the event.
     “I’m going to paying a lot more attention to Bernie,” she said.
     Name recognition for the former first lady of Arkansas originally made Khumalo support Hillary Clinton, she said. Compassion from Sanders may have changed things, however. “I thought I knew which way I was voting, but now?” she asked.
     
     Candidates Confront Their Pasts
     The Vermont senator will have to win many more converts among black voters to pull off an upset against Clinton in New York, where the Democratic front-runner currently leads by a 14-point average polling composite on RealClearPolitics.
     Sanders already sliced the deficit by more than half since late March, a momentum pushed further by landslide victories in seven states in the western United States.
     As Clinton struggles to hang onto her lead, she has faced trouble from tough-on-crime comments she made as first lady.
     “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said in 1996. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel, and the president has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere.”
     Sanders told the audience of roughly 1,500 at the Apollo that Clinton’s subtext was obvious.
     “I think we all know what that term meant in the context that it was said years ago,” the senator said. “We know who they were talking about.”
     “Black people!” one audience member shouted.
     “That’s right,” Sanders replied.
     Once a popular theory, the “super-predator” myth became discredited as criminal-justice statistics proved there was no rise in killer kids. Hillary Clinton distanced herself from that language, but her husband defended the remarks when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted his recent press conference.
     “I don’t know how you would characterize gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” the former president said. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t.”
     Sanders meanwhile called the former president’s comments “unacceptable.”
     “President Clinton owes the American people an apology for trying to defend the indefensible,” Sanders said.
     Legendary actor and social activist Harry Belafonte said his excitement for the 74-year-old senator makes him feel young again at age 90.
     “Hillary who?” Belafonte asked. “We have been there, and done that.”
     Two of the other speakers brought the conversation to police killings of unarmed civilians.
     Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, now a Sanders spokeswoman, spoke about how Cleveland police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while the boy played alone in a park with a realistic-looking toy gun.
     Erica Garner talked about how she turned her grief into activism after a New York City police officer put her father in a fatal chokehold for a petty offense in the shadow of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
     She praised Sanders as a “protester,” the same word she chose for him in a political ad that showed her leading a group of activists chanting her father’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”
     The term called attention to the fact that Sanders marched on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and got arrested at a sit-in attempting to desegregate public housing at the University of Chicago in 1962.
     “I got the opportunity to meet the Chicago Police Department firsthand,” Sanders quipped.
     
     Civil Rights Connections
     While listing Dr. King’s accomplishments for his audience Saturday, Sanders focused on the civil rights leader’s more radical leanings before his assassination, including his opposition to the Vietnam War, fighting income inequality with the Poor People’s Campaign and striking with sanitation workers.
     “He knew what he was doing,” Sanders said. “He knew he was going to antagonize the establishment by doing that, but he kept going because it was the right thing to do. And that was what his mind and his heart told him to do.”
     Sanders connected these struggles to modern-day battles over minimum wage.
     “That’s where we are in many ways right now, asking these same questions,” he said.
     Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied with Hillary Clinton the same day he signed a $15 minimum-wage law on April 4, but Sanders reminded New Yorkers about the years of pressure it took to achieve such change.
     “Trust me, it wasn’t because your governor had a great idea,” Sanders said to laughter and applause.
     Even Clinton’s union supporters seemed to agree with that line.
     At a Rochester rally earlier that day, Clinton told a closed-door gathering of the New York State United Teachers that Cuomo deserves credit for increasing worker salaries. The remark prompted boos from the audience.
     Cuomo disappointed many education activists in New York by attempting to gut one-third of the City University of New York’s funding, and for his backing of Common Core, which relies on standardized testing to evaluate students and teachers both.
     Sanders cited three CUNY institutions – Queens, Brooklyn and City College – as those that offered free education 50 years ago.
     New York City’s financial crisis forced CUNY to abandon its tuition-free program in 1976, but Sanders said the institution’s past showed that his education platform was not unattainable. To critics who call Sanders’ vision unrealistic, spokeswoman Nina Turner quoted the poet Robert Browning.
     “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” she said, reciting the poem Andrea del Sarto from memory.
     Pushing to vault the delegate gap, Sanders has been keeping a grueling itinerary. He rallied tens of thousands of supporters in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan over the past week, moving on now to upstate New York. Sanders will return to the Big Apple on Wednesday to speak at Washington Square Park, before sparring with Clinton at the Democratic debate on Thursday.
     With still a weekend to go before the primary next Tuesday, the Jewish senator from Vermont will then fly to the Vatican to discuss social, economic and environmental issues at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
     An anti-Semitic heckler earned boos at the Apollo when he tried to complain about the “Zionist Jews” who “run the Federal Reserve” and “run Wall Street.”
     As the crowd reacted to drown out the rant, Sanders shook his head, saying sadly, “Brother, brother, brother.”
     “I am proud to be Jewish,” Sanders responded to loud applause, before pledging compassion for both the Israeli and Palestinian people as president.

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