- Cornel WestHarvard professor, philosopher and activist.
- Sen. Bernie Sandersformer presidential candidate and independent senator from Vermont.
Hundreds of international progressive leaders have traveled to Burlington, Vermont, for a gathering hosted by The Sanders Institute. Last night, former presidential candidate and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders kicked the event off with a keynote speech on healthcare, raising the minimum wage and his bipartisan resolution to end military support for the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing of Yemen. He was introduced by Harvard professor Cornel West.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Colchester, Vermont, just outside Burlington, where hundreds of international progressive leaders have traveled for a gathering hosted by The Sanders Institute. Last night, former presidential candidate, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, kicked the event off with a keynote speech. He was introduced by Harvard University professor Cornel West.
CORNEL WEST: It is highly appropriate that the rich legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day and the Edward Saids and others, all of them trying to keep a focus on poor and working people in the midst of the American empire, in the midst of the American democratic experiment, then here comes a brother from Brooklyn, mediated in Vermont, who becomes the great political figure in the context of such truncated electoral politics in this nation, that raises the banner of working people and says, “Wall Street, you’re too greedy. What about working people and poor people? Neoliberal capitalism, you got greed running amok. I might start with 2 percent of even—2 percent of folk knowing even who I am, for the most part, because I’m popular in this John Dewey-dominated Vermont state.” But they may not know you in Arizona, in Nevada, in California. But once they hear your voice—this is what we’re talking about.
We are here because there’s too many folks suffering. And when our dear brother Bernie Sanders stepped forward and I heard his voice and I looked in his eyes, I saw the window of his soul. I said, “He’s for real.” He’s not one of those simulacra and semblances who want to use the language but not want to bear the burden and engage in the service to working people.
So, I am blessed tonight to introduce to you one of those who, when the history is written of those who raised their voices for poor and working people, Bernie Sanders will be one of those voices. My dear brother, Bernie, come and share your voice, my brother. Come and share your voice.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: My news today is good news and bad news.
UNKNOWN: Bernie 2020?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The good news—and Cornel just mentioned this, and it tells you what all of you know. I mean, this is a group of people who work in progressive politics every day. And all of you know that change always comes from the bottom, not from the top. And all of you know—and what this institute is exactly about is to try to educate, go beyond the corporate media, to talk about the real issues facing real people. And just the other day, we had a real example of what could happen.
It turns out that even—Cornel used the word “truncated”—Congress—man, I’ll give you some better words next time, all right? Might be a corporately owned Congress or might be other things. But even there, even there, it turns out that when you explain what the American people really did not hear much about, that in this terribly poor country of Yemen, very poor country, turns out that in the last three years, because of the Saudi-led invasion and intervention in that civil war, 85,000 children have died of starvation. According to the United Nations, millions of people are on the brink of starvation. Ten thousand new cases of cholera break out every single week because the Saudi military has bombed the water infrastructure in Yemen so there is no clean water available. You’re looking at the destruction of a very poor country. Nobody in America knew that.
But it turns out that when you start talking about that issue—and Cornel is right; everyone’s worried about one journalist. What a terrible tragedy that was, but what about the 85,000 children who starved to death? Maybe that’s a tragedy, as well. So, it turned out that when you’re able to raise the issue, kind of break through things, that we were able, just yesterday, to win a significant vote. And I think, in the Senate, on Tuesday or Wednesday, we’re going to win that resolution that says the United States has got to end its relationship with the Saudi despotic regime there and get out of Yemen.
But it raises a profound question. And that is: How the hell did we ever get into a relationship with a government like that? And once again, everybody says, “Oh, my god, they killed Jamal Khashoggi.” It was a terrible, brutal—the guy walks into—imagine—walks into a consulate, a safe haven. They kill him, and they cut him up. How horrible is that? But that is just one example of what that regime is about, our longtime ally, where if a woman is going to get a job in Saudi Arabia, she has to get the permission of some male, you know, to allow her to get the job, or to go to school; where you’ve got a handful of corrupt billionaires who run that country. If anyone protests, stands up and protests, they get jailed. So, maybe as a nation, we should be rethinking our relationships with governments like Saudi Arabia.
And that we have a president who thinks—and of course he lied on this issue, as well—thinks selling them $100 billion of arms makes it all very well and good. Of course, he didn’t even get the $100 billion. That was a lie, as well.
What we are here to discuss is the fact that we are living in very, very difficult times, and you guys are struggling with all of these issues. And I know that during this conference there’s going to be some serious discussion about issues like economic justice. And economic justice means that maybe, just maybe, we will be able to begin a discussion in this country on a word that is never seen on television, not read in the newspapers too often. It’s called poverty.
We’ve got 40 million people, including more than a few in this beautiful state, who are struggling every single day to keep their heads above water. In this state and all over this country, people are working at two or three jobs. And everybody in this room knows that while unemployment today is relatively low, that does not mean that tens of millions of families do not continue to struggle.
And that is why, because of the work that people in this room have done, and others, of course, who are not here, people like Fight for 15, the very good news is that issues that we talked about—Nina will remember this, and Cornel will remember this, and Jane will remember this—all of us who were on the campaign trail together, the ideas that we raised, where every day the editorial pages would say, “These are extreme, these are radical, the American people don’t want it,” it turns out that that is exactly what the American people wanted.
Not shockingly, it turns out that the American people believe that if you work 40 hours a week in America, you should not be living in poverty. And I want you all to think—and this is where I am hopeful—is that just a few years ago, when we talked about $15 an hour as a minimum wage, we were thought to be extremists and fringe people. But in three years, a lot has happened. We have cities and towns all over and states all over this country passing $15-an-hour minimum wage. We forced Amazon and Disney to go to $15 an hour. And I am absolutely confident that when the grassroots continues to mobilize and stand up and fight for economic justice, we are going to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill.
And when we talk about economic justice, we, as progressives, have the guts to talk about issues that you’re not going to see on the television or hear in the Congress. And that is the moral issue. The moral issue. And Cornel and others put morality into the political debate. Is it appropriate that three billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the American people?
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: No!
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Is it appropriate that the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and that we have in this wealthy country the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major nation on Earth?
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: No!
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Now, the TV folks may not like it, and the establishment may not like it, and Wall Street may not like it, but this is a profound issue. This issue of income and wealth inequality is a profound issue, it is a moral issue, it is an economic issue, and it is a political issue, because we have got to stand up, as all of you know, to a corrupt campaign finance system where these very same billionaires are buying elections. And I know that’s an issue you will be talking about this weekend.
You know, I saw Jane Kim—where’s Jane? Yeah, when I was out in San Francisco, we were talking about the crisis in affordable housing. And I thought, “Well, it’s a San Francisco issue.” Or maybe a Seattle issue. Guess what? It is an issue all across this country, including this city that you’re in right now, and that people, young people often, working people, cannot find decent housing. Maybe it’s time we started talking about building the millions of units of affordable housing that we need in this country.
And when we talk about—you know, one of the things that—the role that we can play and that you are playing and that we are all playing is forcing discussion about issues that the establishment does not want discussed. And it’s not only that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth. You’ve got working people today in Vermont, all over this country, they’re going to work. It is not too much to ask that they have affordable, quality child care for their children. This is not a radical idea. It is not a radical idea. Other countries are doing it. Every psychologist who studies human behavior understands that the ages of zero through four are the most important years of a human being’s development. How in God’s Earth can we turn our backs on those little children and not provide them with the nurturing and the intellectual life that they need as little children? So, one of our jobs is to force discussion on issues that are not only right, but in fact what the American people want.
I’ll give you another example. And I see RoseAnn DeMoro here and many of you. A few years ago, we raised the issue, hey, maybe—oh, this is a really radical idea, my god, not to be discussed on television for sure, not to be discussed in the halls of Congress—maybe the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 50 miles away from the Canadian border, maybe, just maybe, we might want to do what every other major country on Earth does: guarantee healthcare to all people as a right, not a privilege..
Oh, my god! Did we get attacked for that idea! “Oh, how are you going to pay for that?” How are you going to pay for that? We’re spending now twice as much as the folks 50 miles away from us spend. They manage to guarantee healthcare to all of their people. Yeah, I think we can figure out a way to pay for it. And I guess that’s something you’re going to be discussing this weekend. But here is my point: We began that so-called radical discussion, and three years came and gone. The last two polls that I saw on the issue of healthcare had 70 percent of the American people supporting Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. And there are more people in the freshman class in the United States Congress who support Medicare for all than ever before.
We’re here not just to talk about economic issues. We’re here this weekend to be talking about racial and social justice. We’re here to be talking about ending, in all of its many and varied forms, institutional racism. And that is—and that is not—when we think about that, everyone says, “Well, we’ve got a criminal justice system that’s really broken. In many ways, it’s racist. Terrible, terrible, terrible.” Yeah, that’s true. And we have to address why we have more people in jail than any other country, why tonight, as we are here, hundreds of thousands of Americans are behind bars. Do you know why they’re behind bars? They’re behind bars because they cannot afford bail to get out of jail.
And we’ve got to talk about this incredibly destructive so-called war on drugs and the horror that that has done to millions of people who were arrested for the crime of possessing marijuana. And again, this is an area—and I want you to appreciate this—we are making real progress. You are now in a state, one of a growing number of states, that has legalized possession of marijuana. All right?
And there is serious discussion now all over the country, because of groups like the ACLU, Black Lives Matter and others, about fundamental reforms of the criminal justice system. But when you talk about racial disparities, it is not just criminal justice. It is health disparities. It is housing disparities. It is wealth disparities. It is education disparities.
And when we stand together and begin addressing these issues, not only are we doing the work of justice; in many ways, we are creating jobs, we’re bringing our people together. I know this is an issue that you’ll be discussing over the weekend. And we’re here to talk about sexism. We’re here to talk about homophobia. We’re here to talk about religious bigotry. And I know we’re also going to be talking about this war on undocumented immigrants.
But even here, even here, despite Trump’s demagoguery on this issue, I want everybody here to know that poll after poll shows that the American people are in a very different place than Donald Trump. Eighty—eight zero—percent of the American people think we should provide legal protection to the 1.8 million young people in the DACA program or eligible for DACA. A majority of the American people believe in comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship.
The overwhelming majority of the American people do not support the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and people want us to move toward public funding of elections. And we’re seeing progress in that area. We’re seeing some progress in taking on the outrageous level of voter suppression and gerrymandering, all right? But clearly, if we’re going to create the country we know we have to create, we have to take on not only a corrupt campaign finance system, but a corrupt election system, as well.
Now, we just came through a campaign of which I, and I know many of you, worked very, very hard on. We didn’t get everything we wanted. I would have loved to become chairman of the Budget Committee. Unless Mitch McConnell does something very, very strange, I think that is not going to happen.
But, on the other hand, our brothers and sisters in the House did well. They won some 40 seats. And let me tell you why it is extremely important that the Democrats now control the House. And it is not only for the very important reason of providing oversight to a president and an administration which is essentially out of control in many areas. All right? So, some questions are going to be asked, I believe, and I’m quite sure, about: Is Trump’s relationship to Putin and Saudi Arabia just based on his governmental judgment regarding governmental policy, or is there something more there regarding financial interest, as well? The president thinks that his administration did a brilliant job in Puerto Rico after the terrible hurricane there. I think his administration will start answering some questions about a not-so-wonderful job that they did there, and other questions.
But here’s what is even more important. For the last two years, you have had a Senate that was bad and a House that was even worse. So, many of the issues that we will be discussing this evening and this weekend never even surfaced. What is going to start happening now is legislation—and I hope that will be strong legislation—is going to start passing the House and come to the Senate. And it is a very different situation when you don’t have to deal with anything, when you don’t have to vote against raising the minimum wage, because you don’t have a bill on your desk, than when that bill comes over. Then you’re going to have to explain to the folks back home why you voted no.
I hope very much—we worked on a 4-year Medicare-for-all, single-payer program. First year was pretty simple. It said lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 55, cover all of the children, lower the cost of prescription drugs. I hope our colleagues in the House bring that bill over to the Senate. And my guess is that 80 percent of the American people support that. And if the senators want to vote against it, they’re going to have to explain that to the folks back home.
So, let me conclude by saying this. There are enormous problems facing this country. All of you are familiar with the two reports that have come out in the last month regarding climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, probably the most comprehensive study ever done, talks about the fact that we have 12 years, which is no time at all, to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, or we’re going to see irreparable harm done to this planet. What we have seen, the tragedy that we have seen in California—85 people dead, 14,000 housing units destroyed—what they are telling us is if we do not get our act together, that is going to become commonplace, not just in the United States, but all over the world. Rising sea levels, flooding, the acidification of the ocean, etc., etc.
So, we’ve got a whole lot of issues out there that we have got to address. But the point that I want to leave you with, the main point that I want to leave you with, as somebody who has traveled all across this country, is that on issue after issue, whether it’s commonsense gun safety legislation, whether it is making sure that our kids can afford to go to college and not leave school $50,000 or $100,000 in debt, whether it’s immigration reform, whether it is criminal justice reform, whether it is telling the billionaires that they’re not going to get a tax break but in fact they’re going to start paying their fair share of taxes, whether it is any of those issues and even more, I want you all to know that the American people are with us on those issues.
The Republicans did not run any 30-second ads which said, “Vote for candidate X so we can give a tax break to the rich and cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” I don’t think they ran those ads, because nobody supports that agenda, which is their agenda. All right? But people do believe in our ideas.
So what do we do? First of all, we have got to make sure that the Democratic Party is not just a party of the East Coast and the West Coast, it is a party of every state in this country. Our job is to make sure that the issues that we deal with, that people understand they impact black families in New York City, they impact white families in Kansas and Latino families in Los Angeles. Our job is to do exactly the opposite of what Trump is trying to do. He is trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, our religion, where we were born. Our job is to bring our people together around a strong, progressive agenda that speaks to the needs of all and not just the 1 percent.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking at the opening of The Sanders Institute gathering here in Burlington, Vermont. Among those attending are Native American leader Winona LaDuke, who will join us on Monday’s broadcast, and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis will be on Tuesday’s show.
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