On a hot and humid August afternoon, residents of the Washington Heights community and surrounding areas gathered at the steps of an abandoned home in anticipation of a visit from Presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders.
The event, hosted by the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina (DBSC), an official caucus of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and the community organization, Vision Walkers, marked the first time ever that a candidate running for national office made the effort to walk among the dilapidated rows of government-owned apartments and meet the people who live within.
Despite the heat, the atmosphere was festive as those present anxiously awaited the Senator’s arrival; ready to have their voices heard. Ready to be granted the respect they deserve as voters who matter just as much as any other. A DJ played a lively mix of old-school favorites and gospel hits.
Volunteers manned a five-foot grill covered from end to end with chicken, hot dogs, and burgers. As the aroma of charcoal-grilled meat wafted through the air, a group of women sat under a shade tree fanning themselves talking about the most pressing needs of the community while younger residents discussed who among the candidates had most captured their attention so far.
Reporters from media throughout the state and around the globe manned cameras and buzzed through the crowd talking to whomever was willing to share their thoughts on the day.
Johnnie Cordero, Chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina approached one of the two microphones that had been set up in the staging area in front of the home and gave a few remarks.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “We cannot thank you enough for opening your door to us for this historic occasion. With passion in his voice, Cordero observed that the event marked the first time that a major Presidential candidate had come into that community and engaged with voters too often overlooked or flat out ignored.
He then gave the crowd a summary of what to expect from the Senators visit as a group of young men from the Vision Walkers walked up a hill to the edge of the neighborhood to welcome the Senator to the community.
Jason Belton, a founding member of the Vision Walkers noted that it was a proud moment to have members of his organization play a key role in introducing a Presidential candidate to a community that is often swept aside.
“As a group of young black men from economically distressed neighborhoods, we are the very definition of a grassroots organization. But our mission is to empower people to participate in government and know that they have a voice, despite the fact that we’re often judged. So to have this opportunity to work alongside the DBSC and invite a candidate like Bernie Sanders to one of our neighborhoods validates that our guys and the people who live in these neighborhoods have so much to offer.”
Though delayed by a previous event, Senator Sanders arrived eager to hear what the residents had to say and ready to offer solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the nation today.
With his shirt sleeves rolled halfway up to his elbow and tufts of white hair blowing in the breeze, Sanders appeared unfazed by the heat or by the swarm of reporters that flocked around him and gave his undivided attention to the men in front of him. He nodded a greeting to the group of Vision Walkers and shook hands with the deftness of a man who genuinely wants to touch as many people as possible.
Sanders was then quickly flanked by Cordero and James Sanders who walked with the Senator down the hill and into the heart of the festivities all while pointing out buildings that had been deemed too hazardous for habitation and others that were in severe disrepair. They rattled off issues like unemployment, gun violence, affordable housing and access to healthcare as top of mind concerns. They also expressed concerns in global affairs like the treatment of immigrants at the nation’s southern border. With the assuredness of seasoned tour guides, they offered Senator Sanders an unfiltered look at the realities of being poor and black in the South today.
Sanders listened intently often nodding, never interrupting. It was clear he took their concerns seriously and upon arrival at the epicenter, paused to acknowledge that he was trying to do his part for this community and others like it.
Then, Chairman Codero took to the mic to introduce the Senator along with the revered Senator from Ohio, Nina Turner, who has been stumping for Sanders throughout the nation.
As Codero gave his introductions the crowd cheered and applauded. One lady even gave the Senator a long hug before he approached the microphone.
Once at the microphone, Sanders outlined his policy proposals for healthcare, for education reform, and for income inequality. He also announced that earlier in the day, his camp unveiled a plan for sweeping criminal justice reform.
The crowd fidgeted in the heat but listened carefully; steadily inching in closer as he spoke. Once finished, applause erupted and the candidate made his way to the grill to sample the chicken.
After a Blessing was given, Sanders paused to briefly talk with a few attendees before making his way to his vehicle.
In a matter of just 45 minutes, Senator Sanders made a lasting impact on a community that would go on to talk about his presence for hours.
Cordero said that although there was some disappointment that Sanders wasn’t able to answer more questions, he considers the event a success.
“Lets not forget that Senator Bernie Sanders is the very first Presidential candidate to come to this community or any other community really like it. That says a lot about his character and his commitment to black voters of all backgrounds. He was asked to come and he came. That fact in itself is no small thing and, frankly, I believe it was an act of leadership and courageousness to stand up and say I will be present. Not that I’ll send a surrogate. Not that I’ll send volunteers but that I myself will be present.
“Remember, ” said Cordero. “There are almost 300,000 black voters who have not been to the polls since 2012 and these are the voters who could very well be the ones to select our next President.”