How Bernie Sanders Evolved on Criminal Justice Reform

Bernie Sanders took criticism in 2016 for not centering systematic racism and injustices — but he's since come around.

UNITED STATES - MAY 15: Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks with members of the press at the Center for American Progress 'Ideas' conference Tuesday May 15, 2018. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, speaks with members of the press at the Center for American Progress ‘Ideas’ conference on May 15, 2018.

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via AP
Many years ago, an editor gave me some sage but surprising advice. He told me not to meet face-to-face with politicians. He said although I was a fierce critic, the moment I met most of them, everything would change. Up close, politicians can be captivating and charismatic, and after having a personal encounter with them, it would be harder to criticize them.

For pretty much my entire career as a journalist, I’ve stayed true to this counsel, going to outrageous lengths to avoid meeting politicians face-to-face. I’ve never met New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. I’ve never met New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And I felt fully at peace when I criticized them both for failing to deliver essential criminal justice reforms they promised.

Despite my personal endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and campaigning for him, I’ve never met him. I’ve had several opportunities to do so and have found ways to wiggle out of each of the encounters. Consequently, when I’ve felt the need to publicly criticize him for a political blind spot or mistake, I haven’t felt like I was violating a personal relationship.

A couple of weeks ago, I broke my own rule — and met with Bernie Sanders.

A couple of weeks ago, I broke my own rule.

As you may know, I help lead a political organization called Real Justice PAC that is fighting to elect reform-minded district attorneys across the country. We recently co-hosted a huge event in Los Angeles with Sanders and the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter to promote local justice reforms. (My work for Real Justice PAC is independent from The Intercept.)

Sanders’s office reached out to me months ago to begin a dialogue about how he could better support our work. He had read my piece on The Intercept about the radical changes newly elected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was making, and it truly seemed to be a revelatory moment for the senator. Within weeks of reading my piece, Sanders was planning on co-hosting an event in Philadelphia with Krasner. Meeting Krasner, I believe, was a transformative moment for Sanders.

In many ways, Krasner is Sanders in district attorney form. Beyond the fact that they are both plain-spoken, gray-haired, bespectacled white men, neither comes from the political establishment. They both see themselves as countercultural leaders determined to challenge the status quo — even if it pisses off every single person around them. Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, you either love them or hate them. Their views, though, are clear. You know where they stand.

In meeting Krasner, Sanders found someone who approaches problems in a manner very similar to his own — but is actually getting stuff done. I don’t mean that as a slight to Sanders, but as a progressive U.S. senator in a Republican-controlled Congress with Donald Trump as president, it’s almost impossible to pass progressive reforms. Krasner has only been in office for six months and is radically changing everything about the inner processes of justice in Philadelphia.

It was a light bulb moment. Real Justice helped elect Krasner, as well as other reform candidates across the country, and Sanders now wanted to know how he could help. His team let me know that between a rally he was hosting to bring attention to low wages of Disneyland employees and an event he had in Los Angeles later that evening, Sanders had a narrow window of time to talk about local justice reforms. He would do whatever we asked, the staff told me, meet with whoever we asked, and speak forcefully for essential local and national criminal justice reforms.

This was a risk for Sanders.

In July 2015, Black Lives Matter activists bravely interrupted a town hall with Sanders at a liberal political event, demanding that he center structural racism in his message. The following month, Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle again interrupted a speech from Sanders — demanding that he center the struggle for black lives in his campaign. In both instances, much of Sanders’s white liberal base struggled to understand why such interruptions were necessary.

A few weeks later, in the wake of those two moments, Sanders met privately with another group of black activists to discuss criminal justice reforms. I spoke directly with many of the attendees that day, including DeRay Mckesson, and was told that the meeting didn’t go well – that attendees sensed very little emotional connection from Sanders and that some wondered if he truly even wanted to be there.

So, three years later, to be willing to co-host a public event in front of over 4,000 people, alongside six radical women of color, without ever asking what they would be talking about or knowing if they would plan on calling him out publicly yet again, was a pretty big deal.

Backstage, I met privately with Sanders, and was immediately struck by his vastly improved mastery of core issues around criminal justice reform. But it wasn’t just his newfound fluency on these issues that surprised me — it was his emotion.

“Our country is basically criminalizing poverty.”

“It’s disgusting, Shaun, that our country is basically criminalizing poverty. I’ll be honest with you. I really didn’t know this was happening. I had no idea hundreds of thousands of Americans, particularly African-Americans, were being held in jail, for months or years, even though they’ve never been convicted of a crime, simply because they can’t afford bail,” Sanders told me in a tiny dressing room backstage before the event.

“I’ve learned a lot,” he continued. “I see the racial disparities clearer than ever. I want to help – just tell me how I can best help and we’ll do it.” I was touched. He wasn’t reading from a script. He was admitting to me, as he soon would from the stage, in front of thousands of people, that he hasn’t always gotten this quite right.

Moments later, Sanders met with Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a brilliant organizer around justice reform in Los Angeles. When she told him that the city was planning on spending $2.5 billion on constructing a new jail, Sanders was instantly appalled. “What a waste. Imagine if that was spent on education and job training,” he quipped.

Co-founder of Black Lives Matter Movement Patrisse Cullors attends the United State of Women Summit on May 5, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)

Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Patrisse Cullors, on May 5, 2018.

Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Cullors then welcomed to the room the most amazing, fierce, experienced group of activists in Los Angeles – all black and Latina women – who immediately communicated to Sanders how essential it was to have him firmly speak out against the construction of the jail and the horrible use of cash bail as a tool of oppression throughout the city. When Sanders asked about the impact of cash bail on families in Los Angeles, organizer Ivette Ale immediately interjected, “Not only are people losing their jobs because they can’t afford the bail for a crime they haven’t even been convicted of, they are often losing their homes, and even their children. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If a single mom is arrested — she could be completely innocent — but if she can’t afford bail, her kids are going to be home on their own and sometimes become wards of the state.”

Sanders was clearly listening to Cullors and Ale. In his speech just a few moments later, he skillfully integrated their very thoughts on the outrageous cost of the proposed jail and the horrible consequences of cash bail right into his message.

Sanders is primarily known for speaking about how unfair and unequal the nation’s economy is, but his critics have frequently said that he has communicated this message at the expense of race and racism in America. I’d tend to agree with them and have said so publicly. This was not the case at our event in Los Angeles. Backstage and before the audience, Sanders openly identified race and bigotry as essential primary factors in why two very different justice systems exist in this country.

He clearly and definitively spoke on how essential it was to hold the worst cops in our country accountable for their abuse and brutality. He railed at how outrageous it is for Wall Street bankers who’ve stolen millions of dollars to never spend a day in jail, while black children across the country are sent to prison for stealing a pair of shoes or possessing weed.


The audience listens to Sanders at the RealJustice event in Los Angeles on June 2, 2018.

Photo: Mason Cotterill/RealJustice

Sanders’s speech was good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really, really good. When Sanders communicated to the crowd how hard the jobs of cops are, and how essential their role is in keeping communities safe, I winced. I was standing next to Melina Abdullah, the director of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, and heard her sigh as well. I assured her that I would communicate to Sanders why such a point probably made perfect sense to him, but stung the crowd.

In our communities, police are often agents of brutality and oppression. Instead of keeping us safe, they arrest and punish people at will. In New York, after the city did away with the policy of stop and frisk and pledged to do away with arresting people for marijuana possession — policies that had seen countless people locked up for doing little or nothing wrong — it would seem like fewer police would now be needed. But police are still an ever-present occupying force. In some communities, police may be seen as welcome guests during emergencies. But in parts of Los Angeles and in many other communities of color across the country, that just isn’t the case.

What Sanders showed was a man who is still very much evolving.

What Sanders showed in that comment was a man who is still very much evolving. His speech was one of the best I’ve ever heard on criminal justice reform from a mainstream American politician. I wouldn’t give it an A, but I would give it a solid B+. Most politicians don’t even have the courage to show up. Sanders did — and he did so with a very graceful humility.

As he had backstage, Sanders told the audience that he had to admit he was just now catching up with everybody else who had spoken before him about justice reform. Knowing that many in the crowd were there to see him, he told them that the organizers and activists sharing the stage with him were the real heroes.

There was something else I suspected about Sanders that I’d wanted to confirm during our event — and I did manage to confirm it: Sanders had been deeply moved by the death of Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York police officer 4 years ago. Erica, who was my friend and perhaps my fiercest defender in the country, had been forced into activism and advocacy. Our last conversation before she passed away happened to be about Sanders. She loved him — and she was stingy with who she loved and supported. So many politicians had lied to her about what they’d do and how’d they’d help her family get justice that she had grown sour on pretty much everyone — except Sanders. He had welcomed her on the campaign trail and even co-hosted events with her. I thought her campaign ad about why she supported him was the best of the whole policial season. Having spent time with her, Sanders saw how badly she wanted justice for her family.

In some ways, I think Sanders feels obligated to carry Erica Garner’s baton on criminal justice reform. She gave so much of her energy campaigning for Sanders that he seems to see his fight for justice as a real way of paying her back.

I think he’s made a good start.

So I violated my basic rule of not engaging politicians face-to-face, but in this case, I’m glad I did. I saw the sincerity and growth in a man that I’ve heard others say was too stubborn to change. With those sorts of changes, with people like Sanders taking up the mantle of criminal justice reform, hopefully our struggle can grow so that this country can change, too.

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