Senator Bernie Sanders Delivers Keynote Address at Brooklyn College Commencement

I am delighted now to invite this year’s
honorary degree recipient and keynote speaker to come forward.
The child of Polish and Russian immigrants, Senator
Bernie Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn, not far from our campus, and he
attended Brooklyn College. I think we’re all familiar with Senator Sanders’
extensive and influential political career thereafter. But what you might not
know is that the Senator’s grassroots activism began right here at Brooklyn
College, literally activism about the grassroots. In May of 1960, the young
Bernie penned a letter to the student newspaper, The Kingsman, in which he
declared, “my purpose in writing is to protest the action of a school guard in
ordering students off the campus grass” he explained as a student at Brooklyn
College. “I appreciate the natural beauty of our
campus in the midst of a large and crowded city. Therefore, I can well
understand the administration’s feelings that the grass would be prettier if left
untreated. I am not quite certain that the sight of students stretched out and
reading on the grass might not add a type of beauty to the school that is
more important than pretty grass.” – I love this letter. It reveals something special
about the young public servant. He sees beauty in students reading, relaxing, and
enjoying the sun. He sees beauty in the quiet oasis that a college campus can
provide in an otherwise noisy city. He sees beauty in people taking time to
read, to reflect, to engage with ideas and he seeks to protect the opportunity for
reflection and public discourse over the petty rules of bureaucrats. So, I want
each of you graduates to think back to a time on the East Quad on a beautiful
sunny day when you stretched out and read under the majestic elms that frame that
East Quad and I want you to thank Bernie Sanders. (Applause) Bernie Sanders has served as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a member of the United States House of Representatives, a mayor of the, and a
member of the United States Senate. He’s a leading voice, as you know, on income
inequality, global warming, immigrants’ rights, renewable energy, campaign finance
reform, universal health care, civil rights, and civil liberties. He continues
to value the beauty of students over tidy lawns and we
are deeply grateful for it. Senator Bernie Sanders, by the authority
vested in me by the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York, I hereby
confer upon you the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters with all the
rights, privileges, and responsibilities which pertain thereto. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) 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. May I not be strangled. (Laughter) Alright, I’ll tell you what. See, not only do I think you have a right
to read on the grass, I think speakers have a right not to
have that stuff around their throats. But I do want, on behalf of my wife
Jane and myself, to see and to pray that you all live healthy and happy lives
doing the work that you enjoy surrounded and loved by family and friends. And 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, and I am very honored by the
honorary degree you have given me. (Applause) I grew up in Flatbush,
and like Senator Schumer, graduated from James Madison High School.
My wife Jane was also raised in Flatbush and Bedford Stuyvesant and graduated
from Saint Saviour High School a few
miles away from you. In 1959, as a first generation student, college student, I
attended Brooklyn College for a year, a year which had a major impact on 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 three and a half room
rent controlled apartment. As with many of your families
who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressure 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-semitic pogroms and attacks on Jews were not uncommon.
While my father immigrated 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 nation of origin, by gender, or sexual orientation.
Black and White, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim. In
every religion, straight or gay, male or female, we must stand together. This
country belongs to all of us. As 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 the attention they deserve, just are not
talked about. As a student at James Madison High School many years ago, I
recall my social studies teacher talking about how there was 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 in
America, the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom
90 percent. 20! 20 Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom half of America and
one family now owns as much wealth as the bottom of 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 three three hundred times what the average worker
makes and in terms of income, while you and your parents are working, in some
cases two or three jobs, 52 percent of all new income generated today goes to the top
1 percent. Meanwhile, at the same time as we have
more income and wealth inequality than any other nation, 43 million Americans
live in poverty. 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 percent. 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 and racism today, in a broken criminal justice system, we have
more people in jail than any other country on earth. (Applause) And those people are disproportionately Black, Latino and Native Americans. Directly related to the
oligarchic community that we currently have is a corrupt political system which
is undermining American democracy and it’s important we talk about that and
understand that. (Applause) As a result of the disastrous “Citizens
United” Supreme Court decision, corporations and billionaires are able
to spend unlimited sums of money on elections and the result is today, that a
handful, a small number of billionaires are spending hundreds of millions of
dollars every single year, often on ugly 30-second TV ads helping to elect
candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful. And we are seeing the
results of how oligarchy functions right now.
Right now in Congress, where the Republican leadership wants to throw 23
million Americans off of health insurance, cut Medicaid by over 800 billion dollars, 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 as they are throwing people off of health
care, making it harder for kids to go to college, they have the chutzpah to
provide 300 billion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent. In other words, the very, very rich are getting richer and they get tax breaks.
The working class and the middle class are struggling and they are seeing
drastic cuts, life and death, in life and death programs, that could mean survival
or not survival 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 the system is rigged, “I am not going to get involved” and 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 life, 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. (Applause) 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 for one percent, 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. (Applause) It means that no, we are not, as the current
administration does, deny the reality of climate change. No, we are going to take
on the fossil fuel industry, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel
to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
It means no, we’re 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 that 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 should be
able to get a higher education regardless of his or her income. And no,
we’re not going to do is 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 or incarceration. No, we are 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 an 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! (Applause)

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