by Rhonda Crowder
Cleveland – The Community Coalition Concerned for Black Life convened a town hall-style meeting with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the historic Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Cleveland’s majority Black east side on Saturday, March 5. About 800 people were in attendance.
Olivet is led by its senior pastor, the Rev Dr. Jawaza Karriem Colvin, one of greater Cleveland’s most prominent Black clergy and a civil rights leader. A Morehouse College graduate, Colvin, 40, has been at the forefront of the movement to condemn police killings of Black people across the nation – in Cleveland, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Organizers said that the overall purpose of Saturday’s meeting at Olivet, which comes 10 days before Ohio’s March primary, was to discuss issues affecting the Black community and how Sanders, a longtime U.S. senator representing the state of Vermont, would address such issues if ultimately elected president.
Sanders entered the forum along with former Ohio Sen. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat and a national surrogate for his presidential campaign, and Dr. Cornel West.
An academician, social activist, public intellectual, author and scholar who taught at both Harvard and Princeton universities and has published or contributed to 20 books, West is best known for his oratory skills, his public speaking, and his influential books, “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters.”
Neither West nor Turner spoke publicly at the forum, but both sat down with ClevelandUrbanNews.com afterwards for a one-on-one interview. “He’s the real thing,” said West of Sanders.
“No doubt about it, Hillary is a Wall Street Democrat,” West said of Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ rival for the Democratic nomination for president, and the front-runner. Organizers told ClevelandUrbanNews.com that Clinton was also invited to the town hall forum at Olivet.
Turner referred to Sanders as a strong champion for justice, saying he’s stood up for the people all of his life. “He [Sanders] is the type of leader we need to take us through this 21st century,” said Turner.
At the forum, Sanders began by introducing himself, saying that he grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money and studied economics in college after graduating from high school.
He spoke of his arrest in August 1963 at a demonstration against school inequality in Chicago when he was a member of CORE, shortly before he attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And he said that he helped the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. win the state of Vermont in 1984 in his failed bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
Sanders called for an end to the death penalty, criticized welfare reform and trade agreements, and said that he will make voting simple by “eliminating registration.”
He denounced the nation’s high rate of poverty and said that 47 million people are living in poverty – with 35 percent of them African-American children. Children, he said, “have become political pawns.”
He called the level of Republican obstructionism unprecedented and pointed to the Republican initiated push back on President Obama’s constitutional authority to nominate a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the wake of the death last month of longtime conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
The presidential hopeful garnered several standing ovations during his half hour-long speech. Rev. Colvin, one of Cleveland’ most esteemed orators, made it clear that the event was not a debate. Nor was it an endorsement, Colvin said.
Dr. Rhonda Y. Williams, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and founder and director of the Social Justice Institute at CWRU, delivered the coalition’s statement of purpose . She laid out a laundry list of areas in which the greater Cleveland community, and the county in some instances, needs criminal justice reform.
Also co-chair of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, which is mandated by the consent decree between the city of Cleveland and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for police reforms, Williams said that the gap between campaign promises and the reality is huge and that “we must instruct this democracy on how to behave.”
The second portion of the program consisted of a question and answer session with Sanders and the audience. Rev. Colvin started off by asking Sanders’ stance on mass incarceration and the “war on drugs.” “Marijuana should not be in the Federal Control Substance Abuse Act alongside heroin,” said Sanders.
Sanders wants to streamline the process of clemency by taking a look at each individual case, and he wants job training and access to a quality education for people with felony records.
On the issue of law enforcement and the use of deadly force, Sanders said that a citizen being killed while in police custody should automatically trigger a federal investigation.
He talked about improving police behavior by reconsidering how officers are trained and reversing the “shoot first” mentality.
When Latonya Goldsby, a cousin of slain Cleveland police victim Tamir Rice, asked how families like hers can receive justice, Sanders referred back to creating the policy of launching an immediate DOJ investigation.
Cleveland Misty Luminais, a White woman in attendance at Saturday’s community forum, said that she is definitely considering Bernie Sanders.
Luminais likes how Sanders speaks, including his message of solidarity, and she said that she believes that the federal lawmaker is more honest than Clinton.
Reporter Rhonda Crowder, an assignment reporter of 10 years for the Call and Post newspaper in Cleveland, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Editor Kathy Wray Coleman, a 23-year investigative and political journalist who trained for 17 years at the Call and Post, can be reached at email@example.com. Visit www.clevelandurbannews.com/.