Sen. Bernie Sanders called his experience in 1960s Chicago “an extraordinary moment in my life” that “very much shaped my world view” Sunday as he held one of the first rallies of his latest White House bid at Navy Pier.
His speech in front of a boisterous crowd of supporters continued a theme that began earlier in the weekend. Sanders has begun to share a little more about his personal life with voters, and his speech in Chicago followed similar remarks in Brooklyn.
“Chicago provided me, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to put two and two together in understanding how the real world worked,” Sanders said. “To understand what power was about in this country and who the people were who had that power. Those years enabled me to understand a little bit about how wars get started.”
Though Sanders largely steered clear of present-day Chicago politics — he came to town in the midst of a contentious mayoral runoff election — Sanders did mention Laquan McDonald as he decried what he called a “terrible level of police violence against unarmed people in the minority community.”
The 17-year-old was fatally shot by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who last year was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder.
Sanders also mentioned Sandra Bland, the Naperville woman who died in a Texas jail after a traffic stop, among others. Sanders promised police reform “led at the federal level, which says that lethal force is the last resort, not the first.”
The man who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016 also used his Chicago speech to call President Donald Trump “the most dangerous president in modern American history.” He promised an administration free of “racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry.”
Sanders also promised a $15-per-hour minimum wage, a “Medicare-for-all, single-payer program” and comprehensive immigration reform.
“The United States of America must never be a country that snatches tiny babies from the arms of their mothers,” Sanders said.
By the time Sanders took the stage Sunday, a crowd had managed to largely fill the hall at Navy Pier. They raised their cell phones and “Bernie” signs into the air, welcoming a waving Sanders to a stage flanked by two American flags.
“Thank you Chicago!” Sanders said after he finally made his way to the podium more than an hour after the program was scheduled to start.
Sanders spent much of his speech outlining the contours of his 2020 campaign, but the senator from Vermont also spent time reminiscing about his four years as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. He said Chicago gave him the chance to get involved in the civil rights and labor movements.
“So thank you, Chicago, for that opportunity,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he became involved at that time with the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE, and helped fight segregated housing at the University of Chicago. He said the group staged one of the first northern civil rights sit-ins, prompting the university to reconsider its policy.
He also recalled slow desegregation efforts by Chicago schools, describing overcrowded and underfunded black schools despite hundreds of empty “white” classrooms. He said black children were placed instead in rat-infested trailers. Sanders said he and others tried to protest the trailers and spent a night in jail.
“The reason I tell you all of this is because my activities here in Chicago taught me a very important lesson that I have never forgotten,” Sanders said. “And that is that, whether it is the struggle against corporate greed, against racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental devastation, or war and militarism, real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom up.”
Sanders railed against corporate greed, unending wars and “Nazis marching in the streets of the United States.” He told the crowd at Navy Pier they should not “allow Trump and his friends to divide us up.”
“If we stand together believing in justice and human dignity, if we believe in love and compassion, the truth is there is nothing we cannot accomplish,” Sanders said. “Let us go forward together.”