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Bernie Sanders to Brooklyn College Graduates: Don’t ‘Allow Demagogues to Divide Us’

9 minute read

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave the commencement address at Brooklyn College on Monday. See his full remarks below.

You know and I know that these are tough times for our country. But I do want to say that standing up here and looking out at the beautiful people in front of me, I have enormous confidence in the future of our country.

Let me begin by congratulating the graduating class of 2017. Today is an important day in your lives, something that I know you have worked very hard to achieve, and I want to wish all of you the very best of luck in your future endeavors.

I do want, on behalf of my wife, Jane, and myself, to pray that you all live healthy and happy lives, doing the work you enjoy surrounded in love by family and friends.

Let me thank President Michelle Anderson, Nicole Haas, the Brooklyn College Administration, faculty and staff and all of you for inviting Jane and me back to Brooklyn where we were both born and raised. am greatly honored of the honorary degree you have given me.

I grew up in Flatbush and, like Senator Schumer, graduated from James Madison High School. My wife, Jane, was also raised Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and graduated from St. Savior’s High School a few miles away from here.

In 1959, as a first-generation college student I attended Brooklyn College for a year — a year which had a major impact in my life. After that year I left for the University of Chicago, where I eventually graduated. My mom had died the previous year and I felt it was time to leave the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world looked like.

My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities. First, my mom, dad and older brother, who graduated from Brooklyn College, lived in a 3 1/2 room rent-controlled apartment. As with many of your families who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressures caused friction and tension within our household. From those experiences of growing up without a lot of money, I have never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for retirement — people who against great odds are fighting today to live in dignity.

The second reality that impacted my life was that my father left Poland at the age of 17 from a community which was not only very poor, but from a country where anti-Semitism, pogroms and attacks on Jews were not uncommon. While my father emigrated to the United States, and escaped Hitler and the holocaust, many in his family did not. For them, racism, right-wing extremism and ultra-nationalism were not “political issues.” They were issues of life and death — and some of them died horrific deaths

From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on my mind was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim and every religion, straight or gay, male or female, we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.

As a United States senator from Vermont let me give you a very brief overview of some of the serious crises we currently face — crises which do not often get attention they deserve.

As a student at James Madison High School, many years ago, I recall my social studies teacher talking about how there were small developing countries around the world that were “oligarchic” societies —places where the economic and political life of the nation were controlled by a handful of very wealthy people. It never occurred to me as a kid in Brooklyn that the United States of America, our great nation, could move in that direction. But that is precisely, in my view, what is happening today.

Today, the top 1/10 of 1% now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Twenty Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom half of America and one family now owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of our people. In the last 17 years, while the middle class continues to decline, we have seen a tenfold increase in the number of billionaires. Today in America CEOs are earning almost 350 times more than the average worker makes. In terms of income, while you and your parents are working in some cases two or three jobs, 52 % of all new income goes to the top 1%.

At the same time as we have more income and wealth inequality than any other major nation, 43 million Americans live in poverty, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country in earth, half of older workers have nothing in the bank as they approach retirement and in some inner cities and rural communities, youth unemployment is 20, 30, 40%. Unbelievably, in our country today as a result of hopelessness and despair we are seeing a decline in life expectancy. People are giving up. And they’re turning to drugs, to alcohol, and even to suicide. And because of poverty, racism today in a broken criminal justice system we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. Those people are disproportionately black, Latino and Native American.

Directly related to the oligarchic economy that we currently have is corrupt political system which is undermining American democracy and it’s important we talk about that and understand that. As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, corporations and billionaires are able to spend unlimited sums of money on elections. The result is that today a handful of billionaires are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, often on ugly 30-second TV adds, helping to elect candidates who represent the rich and the powerful get elected.

And we are seeing the results of how oligarchy functions right now in Congress where the Republican leadership wants to throw 23 million American off of health insurance, cut Medicaid by over $800 billion, defund Planned Parenthood, cut food stamps and other nutrition programs by over $200 billion, cut Head Start and after school programs, and by the way, make drastic cuts in Pell grants and other programs that help working class kids be able to go to college.

And, unbelievably, at exactly the same time that they are throwing people off health care, making it harder to people to go to college, they have the chutzpah to provide the $300 billion in tax breaks to the top 1%. In other words, the very, very rich are getting richer and they get huge tax cuts. The working class and the middle class are struggling and they are seeing drastic cuts in life or death programs that could mean survival or not for those families.

Now, in response to these very serious crises it seems to me that we have two choices. First we can throw up our hands in despair. We can say, “I am not going to get involved.”

That is understandable. But it is wrong.

Because the issues that we deal with today — the economic issues, the social issues, the racial issues, the environmental issues — not only impact your lives, they impact the lives of future generations and you do not have the moral right to turn your back on saving this planet and saving future generations.

The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make is to stand up and fight back — reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, not just the 1%.

And for us to do that it is necessary that we fight for a vision of a new America. An America based on progressive, humane values, not the values of the oligarchy.

And what does that mean, briefly in concrete terms?

It means that, no, we are not going to throw 23 million Americans off the health care they have. We are going to bring about health care for all as a right, not a privilege.

It means that, no, we are not, as the current administration does, deny the reality of climate change. We are going to take on the fossil fuel industry, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

It means no we are not going to cut Pell grants and other student assistance. We are going to do what Germany, what Scandinavia, what countries all over the world do. And that is to make certain the public colleges and universities are tuition-free and we’re going to significantly lower student debt because we believe that anyone in America who has the ability and the desire to be able to get a higher education regardless of his or her income.

And no we’re not going to do what the attorney general of the United States now wants. We’re not going to put more people in jail. We’re going to fix a broken criminal justice system and invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails and incarceration.

No, we’re not going to defund Planned Parenthood. We’re going to vigorously defend a woman’s right to choose.

My friends, let me conclude by saying this. We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We are seeing exploding technology, which if used well, has extraordinary potential to improve life. We are an intelligent and hardworking people. If we are prepared to stand together; if we take on greed and selfishness; if we refuse to allow demagogues to divide us up there is no end to what the great people of our nation can accomplish.

So today as you graduate Brooklyn College, my message to you is very simple. Think big, not small, and help us create the nation that we all know we can become. Thank you all very much.

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