BernieSanders-JBryant

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, follows the Rev. Jamal Bryant as they begin a tour of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential contender, expressed disbelief on Dec. 9 as he toured a portion of Sandtown and declared that it seemed like a Third World country rather than part of a city so close to the nation’s capital.

“Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you’re in a wealthy nation, you would think you’re in a third-world country, where unemployment is over 50 percent, a community that does not even have decentquality grocery stores,” Sanders told reporters.

“Bottom line is in the last 30 years we have seen a massive transfer of wealth from working families to the top one-tenth of one percent,” he told reporters. “What this campaign is about and what my presidency is about is transferring that wealth back into the hands of working families, back into our cities, back into our communities. It is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We can create a society in which all of our people have a decent standard of living – not a society in which almost all new income and wealth goes to the top one percent. That’s what I’m dedicated to changing.”

The senator was followed by media representatives and a crowd of curious onlookers that grew with each block as he walked in what the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple called “the heartbeat of where Black Baltimore is trying to find itself” – from the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues to a mural near where Freddie Gray was arrested in April, at Presbury and North Mount.

What he saw included evidence of high unemployment, predatory lending practices, a dearth of grocery stores and too many dilapidated buildings. Bryant, who organized the senator’s visit, noted that while much media attention has focused on the CVS at Penn and North that is being rebuilt after having been destroyed during rioting in April, little attention has been paid to the 20 black businesses that have not been able to reopen because of insurance issues.

Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, said he had rarely been asked to address the kinds of urban issues that the group assembled by Bryant posed to him, including mass incarceration, aggressive policing, public schools, historically black colleges, student debt, economic development and home ownership.

Of approximately 20 people sitting around the table in the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center on Eutaw Street in Bolton Hill were pastors and seminarians of Baltimore area churches, as well as Ferguson, Mo., Tallahassee, Fl., Brooklyn, N.Y. , Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC. Non-ministers included Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal opportunity in Higher Education; Mike Chandler, president of a gospel music radio network; and the senator’s wife, Dr. Jane O’Meara Sanders, a former college president.

“This is not just a Baltimore problem. It is a Black America problem,” observed Bryant. “It was so important for us that the Senator did not just hear statistics and testimony without seeing the face of a community that is urgent need of assistance.”

In a closed roundtable discussion that lasted nearly an hour and in a news conference afterward, Sanders discussed a wide range of issues, including banking practices, access to higher education, the re-entry of formerly incarcerated men and women, obstacles to neighborhood development and police brutality. His proposals included police reform; free tuition to public colleges and universities; creation of 13 million “decentpaying jobs”; raising the minimum wage to $15; and trade policies that entice corporate America to reinvest in this country. He would also create jobs for 1 million teenagers. “It makes a lot more sense to me to be getting kids jobs rather than seeing them hang out on street corners and end up in jail,” Sanders said.

During the news conference after the closed meeting, a reporter asked Sanders to comment on terrorism. But Sanders said he was in Baltimore to discuss other matters. “Obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue, and we’ve got to address that,” he told reporters. “But so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care, so is the need to protect working families. And I will continue to talk about those issues.”

The Rev. Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, found the Vermont senator “very impressive.”

“If the community is going to be stronger, if the country is going to be stronger, then we have to place a greater emphasis on and attentiveness to the community of the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged; and it appeared to me that he feels that and that he gets that.”

Bryant said that it is too soon to talk about endorsements and noted that Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican candidate, and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, are expected to meet with black ministers and civic leaders in coming days. As for Sanders, Bryant said: “He spoke a very strong argument and raised a very high standard for those who come behind him.”