In the lead-up to the crucial Democratic primary on April 19th, tens of thousands of New Yorkers gathered in Washington Square Park last night to hear Bernie Sanders speak. The streets leading up to the park were packed with a crowd that can best be described as young and diverse. Sanders’ message was received with cheers and his denunciations of Wall Street and other demons earned boos. At times the atmosphere resembled a gospel church service, with attendees shouting out “that’s right!” and chanting the candidate’s name. Although the park itself was closed off, attendees still gathered tightly together outside to hear Bernie over the loudspeakers as best they could.
Naturally, the Vermont Senator railed against the inequity of the current economic climate. But he devoted a significant amount of his speech to drug and police reform, too—and he effectively used the War on Drugs as a yardstick for multiple failings in US domestic policy, comparing the severity of marijuana convictions with the impunity of corporate criminals:
“What this campaign is talking about is not just a corrupt campaign finance system and a rigged economy. It is talking about a broken criminal justice system and this criminal justice system is really quite remarkable just the other day Goldman Sachs reached a formal settlement with the US government for $5 billion—and in doing that what they essentially acknowledged and what other banks have acknowledged is that they were selling worthless packages of sub-prime mortgage loans and ripping off investors and fellow Americans and they reached a settlement for 5 billion bucks because of that illegal behavior.
But here is what is really remarkable: Today some kid in New York City gets arrested for possession of marijuana. That kid will carry a police record for the rest of his life, which is serious stuff, but if you are an executive on Wall Street and your illegal behavior destroys the lives of millions of Americans, you don’t get a police record—you get an increase in your compensation package.”
Sanders also emphasized criminal justice reform, reserving particular ire for the private prison industry, which in the past has funded his opponent Hillary Clinton:
“When we talk about criminal justice, every person here and every American should be ashamed that we in this country have more people in jail than any other country on earth—2.2 million Americans in jail; we are spending $80 billion a year locking them up… the truth is, we’ve got to end private corporate ownership of prisons and detention centers.”
Sanders then addressed police violence in no uncertain terms:
“We are gonna bring about police department reform all over this country. You are tired and I am tired of seeing those videos on TV of unarmed people being shot by police officers… the truth is the overwhelming majority of police officers are honest they are hard working and they have a very difficult job to do that’s the truth but the other truth is that like any other public official if a police officer breaks the law then that officer must be held accountable.”
Sanders also spoke about the opioid crisis, and the hypocrisy of marijuana being a Schedule One drug:
“Over the last 30 years millions of Americans have received police records for possession of marijuana. Today, marijuana is a Schedule One drug under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. I believe we should remove marijuana … Let states determine the legality, if they want to legalize marijuana or not, but it should not be a federal crime.
But when we talk about drugs, let’s understand something that is serious business and that is we have a opiate and heroin epidemic in this country. That every day in New York, Vermont, all over this country, people are dying of heroin and opiate overdoses. In my view the best way to address that crisis is to understand that addiction and substance abuse is a health issue, not a criminal issue.”