Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders swept through Baltimore today to meet with African-American faith leaders who had gathered here from around the country.
At a press conference afterwards, Sanders said he and the pastors from Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, Washington, D.C., Tallahassee, and New York discussed three pressing issues at their ecumenical roundtable: education, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the lack of financial investment in black communities.
Sanders kicked off his visit with a brief walking tour of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
I can't imagine that he saw anything.
Though Sanders walked, accompanied by Pastor Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME who kept his arm protectively around the senator the whole time, the media—dozens of cameras and a circus of reporters—certainly blocked his view of anything. Nonetheless, he made the tour. Past the Gilmor Homes. Past the blocks with boarded-up windows. Past the giant mural of Freddie Gray. Reporters outnumbered residents 10 to 1 on the streets and dutifully kept their cameras and iPhone recorders on Sanders, tripping over broken bottles, garbage cans, and crumbling stoops with their eye on the prize, a close-up of the presidential hopeful.
Sanders' assessment of the neighborhood he never really saw? "You'd think we were in a third-world country." (Aside: Baltimoreans, full of the underdog's civic pride, may bristle defensively here but I think some righteous indignation is called for; our city should not look like this, it should not be like this.)
Still, there's something vaguely distasteful, a hint of "slumming it" to have a presidential candidate come touring Sandtown—though I suppose this doesn't differ from the kind of run-of-the-mill disaster tourism politicians always do on the heels of, say, hurricanes and earthquakes and floods. Except, in this case, it's a man-made disaster the visitor is assessing.
The purpose is vague. Do we expect epiphanies? "Ahh, so this is how the other half lives!" Or to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt, maybe the whole point is to let Americans—via the national media who shadow him—get a glimpse of the struggle, a visceral image of urban blight, a sense of what poverty looks like as it bears down on people in the form of boarded-up buildings, shuttered shops, tattered bodegas with their plastic-glass cashier cubes.
But it didn't work. Not one journalist I saw in this mighty crew of national press swung their camera away from the Sanders vortex to look outward, to see our Sandtown-Winchester, to pay tribute to the struggle.
Whatever the intent, it came off as slumming.
And I say this, but I say it with fondness like, "Yo, Bernie, really? You're better than this." Because I like Bernie Sanders. He hits all the right bases.
He talked about the high unemployment rate in the black community. He said he would raise minimum wage to $15. When he mentioned wages, he remembered to point out that women are only making 79 cents for every dollar men make. He touched on the issue of better funding for historically black colleges and universities. (Aside: Until recently, I was a professor at Morgan State University, a historically black university that is desperately underfunded and is one of four HBCUs who sued the state for equitable funding.)
He said that when he is president, he will make all public universities tuition free. (Aside: I'm the parent of a college student in a public university.) He said that whenever anyone dies in police custody there should be a federal investigation. (Aside: I spent a day this week at Officer William Porter's trial in the death of Freddie Gray and I think such mandatory federal investigations are a fine idea.) He said police use of lethal force ought to be a last resort and cops should be trained accordingly. He slammed the high incarceration rate, insisting "every American should be deeply ashamed" that we spend $80 billion a year "locking up our fellow Americans."
He insisted there should be ATMs and bank branches in Sandtown (rather than check-cashing stores that charge a chunk of change for each transaction), and good grocery stores and strong schools.
In any case, Sanders got some street cred from a few Sandtown residents for making the trek. (Snide aside: if not actual votes.)
Larry Ryan, a 21-year-old resident of Sandtown-Winchester, stood on the edges of the shoulder-to-shoulder media crowd that precluded any possible, even teeny-tiny glimpse of the completely eclipsed Sanders, and admired the senator for at least visiting the area.
"He strong," Ryan said. "Walk the streets like this, he strong. Ain't nobody else walking through here."
"This is why I'm voting for him," Ryan's friend said, edging in on our conversation and pulling at my Sanders-issued press pass to point at the Bernie 2016 slogan on the press credentials: "Let's start a revolution today!" He ran his fingers along the phrase, a caress. "This right here is why I'm voting for him."
"You registered to vote?" I asked.
Both men shrugged, shook their heads, and Ryan answered sheepishly, "I should be."