Chants from the crowd filled Bennett College’s Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel as US senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took to the podium on Friday afternoon. Close to 800 supporters visited the historically black college’s campus to hear the presidential hopeful speak.

Sanders, who stopped in Greensboro on a tour of college campuses, was introduced by Bennett College’s president, Suzanne Walsh, followed by Nina Turner, the national co-chair of Sanders’s 2020 campaign and a former Ohio state senator.

“He has the courage, conviction and consistency to know that his only special interest are people like you in this room cause he ain’t got to answer to multimillionaires and billionaires,” Turner said.

Before coming to Bennett, Sanders also visited the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the morning, followed by a visit to the Prestige Barber College and a climate change rally in downtown Greensboro.

“For the sake of this country and the world, we need you to be actively involved in the political process,” Sanders said to the crowd at Bennett College. “We need you to be thinking big, not small…. [The system] wants you to believe that all power rests with the 1 percent. Well what we are here today to tell you is that is not the case. We are here to tell you, that when we stand up to the lies and the racism and sexism and the homophobia and the xenophobia of Donald Trump… there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

Unlike other recent campaign rallies in Greensboro by Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, in which they recited speeches to a crowd, Sanders held a town hall-style event where he asked members of his campaign to answer questions that he thought would interest voters. The first panel to speak included Turner, rapper and activist Killer Mike, activist Phillip Agnew and Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The second panel included Turner, actor and activist Danny Glover, political scientist Adolph Reed and activist Cornel West.

During the town hall, Sanders asked the speakers about topics such as funding for HBCUs and eliminating student debt.

“When we talk about the importance of HBCU’s,” Agnew said, “it is in what is it is doing today for young black people who do not know what their lives could be if it hadn’t been for institutions that told you, you are something and you are gonna do something.”

It didn’t go unnoticed that Sanders chose Bennett College as the location to host his stop in Greensboro because of the school’s recent troubles with losing accreditation earlier this year after years of financial hardship.

One of the most personal topics to attendees during the event was the topic of the war on drugs.

“It was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people ordered by Richard Nixon,” Killer Mike said. “We know that race and poverty have been used through the war on drugs to continue to separate people.”

After Mike and other panelists’ response, Sanders asked the crowd how many of them either knew someone or had been personally arrested for possession of marijuana. 

Hundreds of hands shot up in the air.

“This is what the war on drugs has done in this country,” Sanders said as he looked around the chapel. “It’s criminalized so many people in this room, this is amazing…. The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions people in this country and we’re gonna end that war on drugs, and we’re gonna make marijuana legal.”

At the end of the event, Sanders opened up communication with the crowd as two lines formed to ask the senator direct questions. Many of them were college students from Bennett or neighboring NC A&T University. While some of the questions like ones about student debt and ways to fund HBCUs elicited specific answers from Sanders, others like how to fix the immigration system and how to promote equality for the LGBTQ community remained vague.

“We’re gonna do our best and place this as a major priority, to end all forms of discrimination in this country,” Sanders answered. “That includes discrimination on sexual orientation, discrimination against transgender people, discrimination against people because of the color of their skin, their religion or the country that they came from. We will put together a cabinet and an administration that looks like America and we will implement policies that work for ordinary people and not just the people who have the money.”

Killer Mike, who closed the event, pumped up the audience once more, telling the crowd that the time for a Sanders presidency is now.

“There are more of us, we’re stronger, we will wait no longer,” Mike said. “The time is now. When you go to that booth next year, I need you to carry in that booth the the memory of this room…. We are together, we are united. Our time is right now. We will not wait four more years, we will not wait 20 more years. We will not wait two more presidents… this is the president, the next president of the United States of America. The time is now!”

Sanders saluting to the crowd at the end of the town hall on Friday (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

After the event, several attendees waited outside the chapel, in hopes of catching one more glimpse of Sanders before he left. A group of three women in their mid-twenties said that after seeing Sanders speak again today, they’re more likely to vote for him for president.

“This pushed me to 100 percent,” said Ayah Khalifa from Greensboro.

She said she appreciated Sanders’s inclusion of people of color in his campaign without tokenizing them. Ragda Ahmed and Sanan Elgaali, both from Greensboro, said they appreciated Sanders’ long-standing commitment to civil rights, which dates back to the 1960s.

“He’s not woke because of a trend,” Elgaali said.

As a contrast, Ahmed brought up the recently released photos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brown face from 18 years ago.

“Bernie walks the walk,” Ahmed said. “I don’t have to worry about pictures of Bernie in blackface.”

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