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Bernie Sanders courts black voters at roundtable in Brooklyn

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at First

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn on Saturday, April 16, 2016. Credit: John Roca

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders campaigned at a Universalist church in his hometown of Brooklyn on Saturday night, a “Faith and Social Justice Roundtable” moderated by a black intellectual, a Muslim activist and a woman rabbi.

Seeking to pierce Hillary Clinton’s firewall of black support in the final weekend before New York’s primary Tuesday, Sanders filled every pew of the First Unitarian Congregational Society nave in Brooklyn Heights with a multiracial audience of supporters who chanted “Bernie! Bernie!”

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Sanders said, assailing the United States for imprisoning the most people in the world, arresting more blacks for marijuana disproportionately to white use and being a place where “too often, police officers break the law with impunity.”

The race with front-runner Clinton, the former first lady and Obama administration secretary of state, in the Democratic battle is far closer than was expected when the U.S. senator from Vermont began his bid. Sanders has won eight of the last nine primary contests.

The two have staked out policy positions to the left on issues related to black people, including police-on-civilian violence, mass incarceration and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Saturday night’s forum, which began just after 8 p.m., featured intellectual Cornel West and the Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. West and Sarsour are in Sanders’ camp.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was scheduled to be a moderator too, failed to show up. Longtime Sharpton spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger tweeted Saturday night that Sharpton couldn’t attend: “No snub just scheduling.” Rabbi Sara Luria took Sharpton’s place.

West said the message espoused by “Brother Sanders” sounds like Martin Luther King Jr.’s.

Clinton held a 13-point lead over Sanders in an opinion poll by Quinnipiac University released last week, a lead bolstered by black voters’ support. But Clinton’s support overall has eroded in New York, the adopted home state that she represented in the U.S. Senate for eight years.

According to Quinnipiac, black voters favor her over Sanders 65 percentage points to 28 percentage points, while overall support is 50 to 45 in her favor.

Sanders’ appearance came hours after he returned from Rome, where he met with the pope. In a statement, the pope said the meeting didn’t necessarily suggest an endorsement, only courtesy.

Sarsour and West knocked Clinton’s campaign for calling Sanders supporters unrealistic, too idealistic and not pragmatic.

Sarsour said, “People often make this assumption that somehow as a Muslim I can’t support Bernie because he’s a Jew. But people don’t understand the similarities in the very core tenets of Judaism and Christianity and Islam.”

Said West, who said Sanders “is not for sale”: “He’s the real thing . . . We know the difference between the original and the imitation.”

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