Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used his commencement speech to the graduating students of Brooklyn College to press those in attendance to embrace activism and push back upon the conservative program of President Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress.
The Brooklyn native’s speech at the Barclays Center reprised the themes of his bid for the Democratic nomination for president: the concentration of wealth among an “oligarchy” of the top one percent of earners; the nation’s glutted prison system; the inherent “corruption” of politicians dependent on deep-pocketed donors and inscrutable political action committees; the unaddressed dilemma of a warming planet; the lack of mass access to affordable healthcare or higher education. But in place of his old call for a “political revolution” with his own election to the presidency, Sanders instead asserted it would be incumbent upon the current class of scholars to bring about social, racial and economic change.
“We can throw our hands up in despair. We can say ‘the system is rigged, I am not going to get involved’—and that is understandable. But it is wrong,” said Sanders, who attended Brooklyn College for a year before transferring to the University of Chicago. “You do not have the moral right to turn your back on saving this planet and saving future generations.”
“The only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make is to stand up and to fight back, reclaim American democracy, and create a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” he continued to applause.
He then presented a familiar “vision for a new America”—one that would reject Trump and the House GOP’s American Healthcare Act and instead offer universal public insurance, that would make college tuition free instead of paring back Pell Grants, that would reform the nation’s drug laws rather than following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ call for tougher enforcement.
Several political figures addressed the audience prior to Sanders: Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams. All lauded the Vermont lawmaker’s passionate stances and the people he inspired, but only Williams backed him in the Democratic primary last year—an irony that the local legislator noted from the podium.
“There were a lot of elected officials I know who didn’t endorse Bernie, and some of them actually believed in the other candidate. But some of them didn’t endorse Bernie because it was hard politically,” Williams, a Sanders delegate to the Democratic convention. “Some of them didn’t endorse Bernie because of what was in it for them, not what was in it for the rest of the people. Because of that, the entire country suffered.”
“Everybody wants to take pictures with this man now, and what he stands for,” the councilman, a Brooklyn College graduate, continued.
Williams is now a candidate to replace term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. He also took a shot at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new Excelsior Scholarship program to cover tuition at public colleges as “not good” for the City University of New York system—even though Sanders endorsed it earlier this year.