By Tom Travis
Striding onto the stage of a crowded Ballenger Field House Saturday night, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shouted, “Thank you, Flint, Thank you. It’s always good to be back.” Someone yelled out, “We love you Bernie!” The crowd cheered and Sanders said, “Thank you.”
The candidate’s sweep through Flint attracted a bigger than expected crowd–more than 1,000–and caused Mott Community College officials to scramble to find enough space on campus for the event, called a “Town Hall for Racial and Economic Justice.”
The doors for the 7 p.m. event had opened at Ballenger Field House at 5:30 p.m. and crowds rolled in. Security detail used security wands and searched each person’s bags and purses.
Robert Matthews, MCC’s Vice President of Workforce and Economic Development, said because of the overwhelming online signup response, the college made a last minute decision at about noon to move the event from the Event Center which accommodates about 300 people to Ballenger Field House.
One the attendance counters at the event said the final count was 1,040. Matthews said MCC crews scrambled to put down the carpet, chairs, background and sound system needed for the event.
Music from the sound system helped pump up the crowd. Songs like Diablo Rojo by Rodrigo Y Gabriela and Closer to The Heart by Rush played before the speaking began.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio politician who in 2020 became the national co-chair of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, brought the crowd to their feet. Some ran up to her, hugging her, while others stood in their seats waving at her. She moved through the crowd greeting attendees, giving hugs, taking selfies and photographs with participants.
As Turner introduced “our next president of the United States…” Sanders walked briskly out from behind the bleachers waving his arms to the crowd. Sanders walked on stage and greeted the panel of six who would address the crowd later.
Striking a somber tone, Sanders said, “This is a pivotal and serious moment in this election that will determine in a very profound way the direction of our country. Let me assure you we will do everything we can to defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country. Donald Trump will be defeated because no matter what your political view we cannot have a pathological liar in the White House.”
Joining Sanders on stage for a panel discussion during the second half of the town hall were the Director of Flint Rising, Nayyirah Shariff; President and Co-Executive Director at the Center for Popular Democracy, Jennifer Epps Addison; a board-certified family medicine physician trained at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Dr. Victoria Dooley; former Congressman Don Riegle; Director of Detroit Action, Brandon Snyder; and Harvard professor and philosopher, Cornel West.
Sanders spoke for 20 minutes on topics that have come to characterize his campaign, including equality in housing, mentioning that as president he would see to it that 10 million units of housing be built.
He talked about LGBTQ rights, and what he called a “broken” criminal justice system, equal pay and healthcare for all, the environment and taxing the one percent. Sanders asked the audience questions like, “Did you know that 60 billionaires are funding Biden?” — to which the crowd booed and jeered.
Speaking about women’s reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose, Sanders said, “If men were having birth in this country, abortion would be the law of the land.” Grabbing Bernie signs and cheering in support, the crowd rose to their feet.
Then Sanders sat at a table with the six panelists. Each panelist spoke for about five minutes and Sanders responded for about the same, addressing issues of racial or economic reform.
“What makes this campaign different is that I’m not here saying vote for me and I’m gonna solve all your problems,” Sanders said. “We have to beat Trump, that goes without saying. But we have to transform this country and permanently reorient our priorities. And the only way we do this is through an unprecedented grassroots movement.”
One panelist in particular roused the crowd.
“We are about to lose American democracy,” Cornel West said. “Are you gonna turn things around on Tuesday?”
Pointing to Sanders, West said, “This brother comes out of one of the greatest boroughs in the country–Brooklyn.
“There’s a rich Jewish tradition that comes out of Brooklyn,” West said, “that tells the brothers and sisters part of the genius of the Hebrew scriptures, whether you’re religious or secular. It has to do with hesed, it has to do with steadfast love. Justice is what love looks like in public.
“A baby in Ethiopia, a baby in Guatemala, in Argentina, a baby in Flint, a baby in Tel Aviv, a baby in Gaza, a baby in Chile, a baby in Mississippi have exactly the same value, exactly the same significance- that’s what Bernie Sanders understands.”
In his closing remarks, Sanders said it’s time to stop the “same ol’ same ol’ status quo politics” that isn’t working any more. He said, “Oh sure it works for some. It works for the billionaires but it does not work for the working class families of America.” To the crowd Bernie said, “Let’s win on Tuesday!”
The event lasted about an hour and a half. During Sanders’ remarks, a single heckler appeared, coming in the back door of the auditorium with a paper cupped around his mouth. He yelled something inaudible to most in the room. Within seconds he was surrounded by police officers and removed.
An EVM reporter visited the Sanders campaign office, called the Grassroots Headquarters, at 2304 Corunna Rd. in Flint earlier in the day.
Kendall Lareau, a 25-year-old college student from Washington State, runs the office. Lareau said canvassing opportunities are available daily at the office. “Bernie for President” signs and bumper stickers are available as well as a Bernie cut out for selfies or photographs with friends. Volunteers Steven Palmer and Calli Miller were at the office on Saturday. Lareau teaches and trains those who want to participate in canvassing and help with support the campaign.
EVM Staff Writer and Assistant Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.