After a morning rally in Baltimore on Saturday, Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders blamed his primary losses to rival Hillary Clinton in states with high income inequality on the fact that “poor people don’t vote”.
“I think we have done – had some success with lower income people,” Sanders told NBC’s Meet the Press. “But in America today – the last election in 2014, 80% of poor people did not vote.”
Maryland is one of five states with primary elections Tuesday. In Baltimore, the state’s largest city, there is an added sense of importance since the election falls on the eve of the first anniversary of the protests that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray on 27 April, who died of several spinal injuries he sustained during an arrest. When 25-year-old Gray died, his life, plagued by poverty and lead poisoning, became a symbol for what was wrong with this city.
In December 2015 when Sanders toured Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested, he compared it to a “third-world country”.
In his Saturday speech at Royal Farms Arena, he called poverty “a death sentence”.
“I am here today in Baltimore, Maryland, in the richest country in the history of the world, one out of every four people lives in poverty,” Sanders said. “If you are born in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhood, your life expectancy is almost 20 years shorter than if you were born in its wealthiest neighborhood. Fifteen neighborhoods in Baltimore have lower life expectancy [than] North Korea…. Baltimore teenagers between 15 and 19 face poorer health conditions and a worse economic outlook than those in distressed cities in Nigeria, India, China and South Africa.”
At Penn North, the busy intersection at the heart of the Sandtown-Winchester area where a CVS pharmacy was burned down during protests last year, people were lined up on Monday to get free food – loaves of white bread at one table and vegetarian food provided by the activist group Food Not Bombs at another.
“That ain’t true,” said Lisa Taylor, sitting in the bus shelter with a plate of food, of Sanders’ claim that poor people don’t vote. “Because I’m poor and I’m going to vote.”
Taylor said she supports Clinton. “I think she’s going to be real about us getting a fair share of money – I hope she’s real,” she said.
But she also said she admired Sanders. “He’s got a lot of guts coming here in the middle of the hood,” she said. “He’s got some heart. He don’t mind being in the hood.”
Emmanuel Bryan Stevens III, who also sat with a plate in the bus shelter, said of Sanders’ claim that poor people don’t vote: “that’s racist”.
“It’s bullshit,” his friend Ronald Hope added.
Both Stevens and Hope, who grew up together in the old Murphy Homes public housing projects, plan to vote and they are passionate about it. Stevens said it is the first time he will be able to vote in years thanks to a new law that allows felons to vote in Maryland, even while they are still under some form of court supervision. The law could add as many as 20,000 newly enfranchised voters in the city. New early voting laws that allow for same-day registration have already increased early voting more than seven times since the last election, with a record 30,000 people voting before election day.
Stevens will be volunteering at the polls on Tuesday and Hope will be campaigning for state senator Catherine Pugh, the frontrunner in the city’s crowded mayoral race.
Both feel that economic opportunity is the main issue.
“These streets ain’t shit,” Hope said. “Ain’t even like it used to be. Can’t even make no money.”
“Whoever gets in there needs to create some jobs,” Stevens, who said he volunteers a lot but is currently unemployed, said of the prospective winner of the election.
He acknowledges that there are numerous reasons that poor people, and especially ex-offenders, would not vote. “We need to do better,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons. Some don’t vote because there is no one they believe in.”
But nearly everyone had someone to vote against this election.
“I really don’t want Donald Trump in there,” Hope said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many at the food lines.
“He’s racist for real,” Stevens said.
Gerald Bush compares both Trump and Cruz to the Klu Klux Klan, saying they want to “go backwards” on any progress the country has made towards racial justice.
A few miles away, a homeless couple was sitting in the doorway of an abandoned building beside a liquor store on a dilapidated block of Park Avenue near the city’s Lexington Market transportation hub, the day before the primary. They said they are able to use advocacy group, Health Care for the Homeless, as a home address and are registered but said it is still difficult to vote, and especially to stay informed.
“I can’t really watch TV,” Sean Pierre said.
“We vote, but we don’t know who to vote for,” his partner Earley Thomas said. “I don’t know these people. They don’t do nothing for Baltimore. They don’t come through here and say ‘look I can put you in a situation and make them better.’ I don’t know ’em. How am I supposed to vote for them? They want to go to Africa and Jamaica but don’t none of them come out here in the hood and say let’s do something different.”
If they do make it to the polls, both said they would vote for Clinton. “I think a woman should be president,” Pierre said. “We had a black man for president–”
“Thank God,” Thomas interjected.
“Give a woman a chance,” Pierre added.
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